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Two Tahoes: Life resumes as fire rages close by

A measure of normalcy began to return to the resort community of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Thursday, even as crews battled an unpredictable mountain wildfire for a fifth day. Sunbathers ventured to some beaches, and the smoke lurking in the mountains largely cleared.
Railing barely remains upright Thursday at the site of a home destroyed by the wildfire in South Lake Tahoe.Ben Margot / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A measure of normalcy began to return to this resort community Thursday, even as crews battled an unpredictable mountain wildfire for a fifth day. Sunbathers ventured to some beaches, and the smoke lurking in the mountains largely cleared.

But it was a tale of two Tahoes. A few miles from the tourist belt, entire neighborhoods lay in ruin, eerily silent because residents remained officially barred from returning. Many urgently wanted to sift through the ash and grieve.

“Of course they want to see it. That’s what finalizes it — it’s like the funeral,” said Barbara Rebiskie, a U.S. Forest Service investigator who stood in Meyers, the hardest-hit area a few miles south of the lake.

About 3,100 acres had burned as of Thursday morning, with the fire’s containment officially at 55 percent. Some 3,500 people had been evacuated since the fire broke out on Sunday.

'The mop-up stage'
Many firefighters were growing confident that they were gaining the upper hand against a blaze that has hop-scotched and erupted erratically.

“Basically, I think the whole fire is in the mop-up stage,” said Dave Ingrum, chief of a strike team based in San Joaquin County. “I think it’s pretty obvious from the lack of smoke.”

He hastened to add that he was not in communication with crews elsewhere and did not have a sense of the larger picture. Still, his comments were echoed by some fire officials elsewhere.

And as he spoke early Thursday afternoon, a radio call from a comrade in another location reported winds of about 5 mph — drastically lower than the forecast gusts of up to 40 mph.

Rebiskie said it was too early to declare victory.

“The potential is still here, and there are hot spots in the area that’s been burned,” she said.

For the second straight day, predictions of dangerous winds did not appear to materialize, though gusts picked up intermittently in the mid-afternoon.

No closure?
In Meyers, in what was once an area of handsome mountain cabins amid fir trees, cars slumped on their rims, tires vaporized. Aluminum superheated by the inferno had trickled into the streets and then solidified, leaving shiny rivulets on pavement. Driveways led to empty spaces where houses once stood. “For Sale” signs swung in the breeze.

Only public safety officials, utility workers and journalists were permitted into the area because authorities feared unstable trees and power lines could injure residents. Utility crews worked through the night and all day Thursday to restore electricity and other services.

“We haven’t been able to have closure,” said Che DeVol, whose home was destroyed. He and his father visited a victim assistance center set up at Tahoe Community College but he hasn’t been back to the family’s home of 22 years.

“To stand there and at least rake through our stuff, that’s the hardest part,” he said.

'Everybody's awake now'
The region here is a finger of development jutting into vast state and federal forest tracts.

“A lot of these people knew the potential, but said, ‘It’s not going to happen,”’ said Ingrum, who was part of the strike team sent to guard against flare-ups in Meyers, where the fire swept through on Sunday. “Guess what? Everybody’s awake now.”

Authorities were closing in on pinpointing the cause of the destructive blaze, said Beth Brady, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service’s fire investigation team.

As the weekend approached, and beyond it a holiday week, there were signs of tourism returning to life. Power boats prowled the turquoise waters of Lake Tahoe, and a parasailer floated carefree above. A few sunbathers were out at midday, but a fleet of personal watercraft bobbed in the shallows unused.

Farther south, in Kern County, firefighters were working to contain a fire in a steep canyon that had already burned 11,400 acres, destroying 12 homes and six outbuildings, state fire spokesman Craig Tolmie said. About 60 residents were evacuated because of that fire, which was 60 percent contained on Thursday.