South Lake Tahoe, USA — A measure of normalcy began to returnto this resort community Thursday, even as crews battled an unpredictablemountain wildfire for a fifth day. Sunbathers ventured to some beaches, and thesmoke lurking in the mountains largely cleared.
But it was a tale of two Tahoes. A few miles from the tourist belt, entireneighborhoods lay in ruin, eerily silent because residents remained officiallybarred 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 likethe funeral,” said Barbara Rebiskie, a U.S. Forest Service investigator whostood 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’scontainment officially at 55 percent. Some 3,500 people had been evacuated sincethe fire broke out on Sunday.
Many firefighters were growing confident that they were gaining the upperhand against a blaze that has hop-scotched and erupted erratically.
“Basically, I think the whole fire is in the mop-up stage,” saidDave Ingrum, chief of a strike team based in San Joaquin County. “I thinkit’s pretty obvious from the lack of smoke.”
He hastened to add that he was not in communication with crews elsewhere anddid not have a sense of the larger picture. Still, his comments were echoed bysome fire officials elsewhere.
And as he spoke early Thursday afternoon, a radio call from a comrade inanother location reported winds of about 5 mph — drastically lower than theforecast 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’sbeen burned,” she said.
For the second straight day, predictions of dangerous winds did not appear tomaterialize, though gusts picked up intermittently in the mid-afternoon.
In Meyers, in what was once an area of handsome mountain cabins amid firtrees, cars slumped on their rims, tires vaporized. Aluminum superheated by theinferno had trickled into the streets and then solidified, leaving shinyrivulets 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 permittedinto the area because authorities feared unstable trees and power lines couldinjure residents. Utility crews worked through the night and all day Thursday torestore electricity and other services.
“We haven’t been able to have closure,” said Che DeVol, whose homewas destroyed. He and his father visited a victim assistance center set up atTahoe 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 hardestpart,” he said.
The region here is a finger of development jutting into vast state andfederal forest tracts.
“A lot of these people knew the potential, but said, `It’s not going tohappen,'” said Ingrum, who was part of the strike team sent to guardagainst flare-ups in Meyers, where the fire swept through on Sunday. “Guesswhat? 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 investigationteam.
As the weekend approached, and beyond it a holiday week, there were signs oftourism returning to life. Power boats prowled the turquoise waters of LakeTahoe, and a parasailer floated carefree above. A few sunbathers were out atmidday, but a fleet of personal watercraft bobbed in the shallows unused.
Farther south, in Kern County, firefighters were working to contain a fire ina steep canyon that had already burned 11,400 acres, destroying 12 homes and sixoutbuildings, state fire spokesman Craig Tolmie said. About 60 residents wereevacuated because of that fire, which was 60 percent contained on Thursday.