SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Following a subpar winter, wind whipped through the neighborhoods off North Upper Truckee Road Friday. The warm June day was reminiscent of a summer Sunday five years ago that started ordinarily enough, but would alter hundreds of lives and become a defining moment in Lake Tahoe Basin history.
Sunday, June 24, 2012, marked the fifth anniversary of the Angora fire, an event that stands as a stark reminder of the danger associated with living in the forest and the importance of community during times of hardship.
The fire led to overwhelming pain, anger and frustration, but the outpouring of support from fellow South Shore residents was the most common thread among the memories of fire victims contacted this week.
“We did learn how to come together and survive as a community, and we learned and a lot about the things we probably should have done and the things we were doing right,” said Leona Allen, a spokeswoman for Lake Valley Fire Protection District whose home was destroyed by the fire.
“I thought we lost that sense of community for awhile,” Allen said of the years prior to Angora. “And I saw it after the fire.”
For many residents, the community backing began shortly after the remnants of an unattended campfire grew into a ferocious wind-blown blaze that would torch more than 3,000 acres. Stories of people putting themselves at risk to warn neighbors about the up to 100-foot-flames headed in their direction are common.
Marsha Hudson recalled rushing to her Mount Olympia Circle home from work with her daughter after receiving a phone call from her husband, Scott. She said she was home for 45 minutes before the family had to evacuate. The fire had gone down the drainage and Lake Tahoe Boulevard before it came roaring in her direction. A neighbor came around to make sure everybody was out, she said.
“We probably got 85-90 percent of what was important to us,” Hudson said. “We got everything packed and evacuated the pets as the fire was just starting to come into neighborhood and trees were starting to ignite.”
After being left without a home, the Hudsons were offered a place to stay by friends on Skyline Drive who were on vacation. At the time, Scott Hudson was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and was going through treatment. He died last year.
The outpouring of support from the community is one memory that still stands out to Hudson five years later.
“The community was absolutely wonderful, they were so supportive,” she said.
Hudson's husband had been a physical education teacher at local schools and she said the community rallied around them and wanted to help, not only because they lost their home, but because he had cancer.
“They brought us food all the time, held fundraisers, donated things to us, rounded up furniture — I kept a record of all the contributions so I could write thank-you cards,” she said.
The family lost their home in the fire, but rebuilt 14 months afterward.
“We live here for a reason — it's beautiful and everything, but we live here for the people,” she said. “The outpouring of love and support was just amazing.”
Nancy Muller said her family was at their Pyramid Circle home when the fire started. Similar to Hudson, a neighbor rode his bike down the trail and told her they needed to get out. Heeding his warning, she took a few sentimental pieces from her home before evacuating. What few items were left following the fire are still displayed in Muller's rebuilt home.
“I feel lucky I got a lot of pictures down from the wall,” she said. “The first thing I grabbed were my dog's ashes.”
After the fire had run its course, taking more than 250 homes with it, Muller recalled the importance of monthly meetings where residents from the neighborhood would discuss common problems. El Dorado County Supervisor Norma Santiago always came to the gatherings, Muller said.
“At first there was sadness, and then anger over the rebuilding process,” she said. “Then it went to building and helping people pick out siding for their house. The whole progression was interesting.”
“Norma was always there,” Muller added. “I think people were incredibly supportive of Norma and how she handled the whole rebuilding process and how she got the state involved.”
The speedy debris removal and rebuilding process, now referred to as the Angora Protocol, has since been used following wildfires around the West, Santiago said Thursday. But the close bonds among residents is one aspect that cannot be so easily replicated, according to the supervisor.
“The resiliency of the community really showed afterward,” Santiago said. “That community, that neighborhood, is very well-connected, very strong.”
A year and a half after the fire, 80 percent of homes destroyed in the fire were in some stage of the rebuilding process.
“That kind of recovery, you don't find anywhere,” Santiago said.
“We were really close-knit before the fire, but after the fire we were really close-knit,” Muller added of the neighborhood affected by the fire.
John Hartzell, who also lost his home in the fire, recalled the pain and frustration of seeing a lifetime's worth of belongings go up in smoke this week.
“It was a really traumatic experience. It was pretty shocking to lose everything you own and lose your home, too,” Hartzell said.
“You lose your focus in life somewhat. Unfortunately, we've had a number of things happen in the last few years, and this was just one of them.”
He said the loss of possessions was compounded by the loss of stability.
“You realize it's just things, but you lose your habits of everything you do. You come back home, you pay your bills, you watch TV — you have a normal life, and it totally throws that up in the air.”
Despite the disquiet, Hartzell remained grounded in a devastated community, even after an insurance check opened a world of possibilities for the retired firefighter and his wife, Susan.
“Here we had a check, we were totally liquidated and could easily move anywhere in world,” Hartzell said. “I'm already retired; we could do anything anywhere. We didn't have to worry about the moving of anything.”
“We decided we love the community, our friendships are here,” Hartzell said. “We liked where we lived and wanted to rebuild on the same spot.”
After five years, the intense emotions surrounding the fire have dulled for many, and the normal routines of life have returned. But the memories of Angora remain.
“I've moved forward,” Hudson said. “It's been five years since the fire. It's not the same kind of emotions.”
The scars of the fire will remain on the landscape for years to come, but the pain of Angora is largely in the — admittedly not-so-distant — past, Muller said.
“I think there was a lot of healing in many, many ways over the last five years,” Muller said. “It's hard to believe it's been five years, really.”