SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Artist E. Peter Darvas suffered severe burns to his face and hands after trying to extinguish the Sept. 18 fire that destroyed his house on Pioneer Trail, according to longtime friend Robert Schimmel.
The internationally renowned watercolor painter who lived at 3120 Pioneer Trail was transported to the hospital on Tuesday after trying to put out the flames with a garden hose, Lake Valley Fire Protection District Chief Gareth Harris said.
The adjacent house, 3568 April Drive, was also gutted by the fire that started a few minutes before 6 p.m. and engulfed the front of 3120 Pioneer Trail within about three minutes according to an eye witness. Harris said the second house had been vacated a few weeks earlier and operated as a long-term rental, but he did not know who managed the property.
When Lynn Woodward, a member of the Tahoe Art League, read the email Schimmel sent out to the art community after his Wednesday visit to Barton Hospital where Darvas was transported the night of the fire, it was the first information she'd received regarding the condition of her friend Darvas.
Schimmel's email asked friends and Tahoe Art League members to refrain from calling Darvas in the hospital since he is still suffering from damage to his throat and eyes and can't communicate well.
“He virtually couldn't open his eyes. He got pretty singed, but it's all healable,” Schimmel said.
“He was trying to scramble to get his things out. But that house and studio had been his life and he had hundreds of pieces of work in there. He said he was in one room when the fire started and then he came into another when he smelled smoke, and it was like, ‘What do I do?'” Schimmel said.
Schimmel said he doesn't know where Darvas will stay now that his home on Pioneer Trail is destroyed, but the art community is there to help him.
“He's very active and he's a very good artist. We'll support him, but we don't know what to do at this point,” Woodward said.
Tahoe Art League President Juanita Brock said the league is starting a collection for Darvas to help him resupply the studio that was decimated on Tuesday. There will be a bin at the art center, located at 3062 Lake Tahoe Blvd., where people can donate art supplies. Paints and brushes are especially welcome, Brock said. In addition to all his supplies, Brock is confident that some paintings were also lost, but said she doesn't know the full extent of the damage.
The painter had won an appeal in January before the South Lake Tahoe City Council filed after the city had confiscated debris found in his yard. The two parties had grappled with abatement issues.
The council approved the appeal with a 3-1 vote on the grounds that Darvas didn't receive proper notification of the abatement proceedings. Mayor Claire Fortier, the only dissenting voter, said she doesn't buy it.
“I felt that Mr. Darvas was in violation of our city code. He had a backyard full of stuff, which he failed to remove,” Fortier said Wednesday morning.
“It was a nuisance to his neighbors, it was also a health hazard and a safety hazard,” she said.
Since January, Darvas has filed a claim against the city for the cost of his confiscated property. Fortier said she didn't know the amount and wasn't sure Darvas had ever specified it.
The cause and origin of the fire are still under investigation, Harris said. He estimated the total damage to both structures at about $800,000.
According to a South Lake Tahoe Fire Department press release, more than 80 firefighters and 26 law enforcement personnel from multiple agencies responded to the scene that night and were able to contain the fire less than an hour after it started.