A break in the wind allowed firefighters to gain ground on a stubborn wildfire near Lake Tahoe as they prepared for more blustery conditions forecast for Thursday.
More than 2,100 firefighters took advantage of the calm to tame the blaze on two fronts near the small town of Meyers to the south and on the edge of several densely populated subdivisions near the lake itself.
Their work kept the flames from spreading Wednesday, and the fire was 55 percent contained by nightfall, said Rich Hawkins, a U.S. Forest Service fire commander.
But authorities remained cautious, since the forecast calls for 15-25 mph winds and gusts that could reach 40 mph Thursday afternoon. A surprisingly large gust earlier in the week had thrown firefighters off their line and forced the evacuation of a 300-home subdivision.
“It really is hard to predict what these winds are going to do,” said Kelly Martin, a fire behavior analyst who addressed hundreds of firefighters from across the state Wednesday.
The blaze has charred more than 3,000 acres about 4.7 square miles. One injury was reported Wednesday, when a firefighter’s hand was broken by a falling boulder.
The governors of the two states Lake Tahoe straddles, California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nevada’s Jim Gibbons, toured neighborhoods where the wildfire had destroyed more than 200 homes and other buildings since Sunday. About 3,500 people have been evacuated.
Examining the remains of a house in the Tahoe Mountain neighborhood, just outside South Lake Tahoe, the ex-bodybuilder Schwarzenegger hoisted a dumbbell from the debris, marveling that it was one of the few objects to survive. “Amazing,” he told an aide.
Little else survived the inferno. Metal mattress coils, a bicycle, tools, half-melted televisions, concrete foundations and chimneys were about all that was left of the burned houses. Some neighboring buildings stood virtually untouched.
“It could have been much worse, if we hadn’t had such well-trained firefighters,” said Schwarzenegger.
The El Dorado County sheriff’s department estimated the property damage at $141 million. That figure does not include the cost of repairing downed power lines and other damage to the infrastructure.
At a news conference, Schwarzenegger and other elected officials faced angry questions from reporters and residents about whether a regional planning agency’s strict rules against clearing brush and debris from private property had hampered efforts to protect homes from fire.
The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, a joint Nevada-California entity charged with protecting the Lake Tahoe environment and water quality, has been heavily criticized. But Schwarzenegger sidestepped the questions and denounced “fingerpointing” at a time when firefighters and government officials were trying to save hundreds of homes.
Schwarzenegger also signed an executive order suspending replacement fees for those who lost personal records such as drivers licenses or vehicle registration documents to the fire. He also asked state tax authorities to grant extensions to those affected.
Hundreds of homes within view of the lake remained under mandatory evacuation orders, while residents of the already damaged areas were still being asked to stay away as part of a voluntary evacuation.
But many returned at least long enough to stuff more belongings into cars and trucks before leaving again. Others came back and camped out, readying garden hoses and even buckets to douse embers if winds kicked up.
Authorities ruled Wednesday that the fire was caused by human activity, but said the exact cause remained under investigation. They have said there’s no indication it was set intentionally.
Fire investigators interviewed about 10 witnesses believed to be among the first to spot the blaze as it whipped up from a popular jogging and hiking path about seven miles southwest of the lake.
Further east, a five-alarm brush fire in a park prompted authorities to evacuate dozens of homes near downtown San Rafael for several hours Wednesday night. About 30 to 35 acres of hillside burned.
To the south, more than 1,400 firefighters were working a blaze in Kern County, about 80 miles north of Los Angeles, that had destroyed 12 homes.