U.S. News

Aggressive Forest Fire in Tahoe Destroys 220 Homes


Firefighters launched an aggressive attack Monday to corral a raging forest fire that had destroyed at least 220 homes and forced about 1,000 people to evacuate near the popular Lake Tahoe resort area.

The fire, believed to be caused by human activity, had charred nearly 2,500 acres, nearly 4 square miles, near the south end of the lake since it started Sunday afternoon. No injuries were reported.

It was less than 10 percent contained Monday morning, said Lt. Kevin House of the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department.

"This is far and above the biggest disaster that has happened in this community, I don't know, probably in forever," House told reporters in an early morning briefing.

Flames came within a quarter mile of the 1,500-student South Tahoe High School during the night, and dozens of firefighters surrounded the school. A few miles south, hundreds of homes in Meyers were evacuated, authorities said.

Wind slowed to about 12 mph during the night, after gusting as high as 35 mph late Sunday, and temperatures dipped into the 30s, aiding firefighters' efforts to corral the flames in the heavily wooded, parched terrain.

"Our incident commander is feeling very good right now," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Rex Norman. "We had more favorable conditions overnight. It was a good time to be charging in there and making some progress."

"The fire is pretty much staying in the same place right now," Norman said. "But that could change if the winds change."

More than 460 firefighters were battling the blaze, and House said he expected that number would double Monday with help from air tankers and helicopters.

House said there were no reports of people missing in the fire area, but "the truth is we haven't really been able to get in there and see."

Residents and campers sought shelter at evacuation centers in South Lake Tahoe and at the homes of friends and the many hotels in the area. Many evacuees huddled in parking lots in the cold night as ashes rained down.

One family was pulled from the area by rescue workers as they raced back to their home, said Norma Santiago, the El Dorado County Supervisor who represents the district hardest hit by the blaze. The family's house was destroyed, leaving them with only the shorts, T-shirts and hiking gear they'd taken with them.

"It's unbelievable," Santiago said.

The National Weather Service issued a dense smoke advisory Monday warning people from South Lake Tahoe to Carson City that the heavy airborne ash would make it difficult to see and breathe.

State and federal fire officials had warned of a potentially active wildfire season in the Sierra Nevada following an unusually dry winter. The annual May 1 snow survey found the Tahoe-area snowpack at just 29 percent of normal levels, the lowest since 1988.

Fire restrictions have been in effect in Tahoe National Forest since June 11.

Earlier this month, a fire forced residents to flee the eastern Sierra community of Coleville, and there have been several other troublesome fires in the region since mid-May.

Elsewhere, crews in Alaska worked to protect hundreds of homes in the hills of the scenic Kenai Peninsula. It had burgeoned to 81 square miles since Tuesday, consuming 35 far-flung cabins in the Caribou Hills, state fire information officials said. Forty other structures, including sheds and outhouses, were also lost in the popular hunting and snowmobiling area about 80 miles south of Anchorage.

The fire threatens 600 more homes and cabins, Hall said. An evacuation order has been in effect since Friday, but fire officials said an unknown number of residents have refused to budge.