Forest Service blames campfire for Tahoe wildfire
Ryan Summerlin June 30, 2007
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. (AP) ” An illegal campfire caused the wildfire that has burned more than 200 homes and charred 3,100 acres south of Lake Tahoe, the U.S. Forest Service said.
The fire was built in a campfire-restricted area, but there was no evidence it was deliberately constructed to spark the devastating wildfire that has displaced about 3,500 people, said Donna Deaton, an investigator for the U.S. Forest Service, at a town hall meeting here Friday night.
Deaton said there are no suspects, and that the fire was built about a quarter-mile south of Seneca Pond, a popular recreation area south of Lake Tahoe.
Because of tinder-dry conditions due the lack snow over the winter, the U.S. Forest Service had banned all campfires, charcoal grills, smoking and fireworks throughout the Tahoe basin.
The fire’s cause was announced after a second straight day of mild winds, which allowed firefighters to surround the blaze. The blaze was 80 percent contained Friday evening, while the amount of land burned held steady at 3,100 acres, or 4.7 square miles, according to U.S. Forest Service incident commander Rich Hawkins.
“Firefighters came in this morning and felt even more comfortable about the approaching containment of this fire,” Hawkins said. “I’m feeling pretty good about it.”
Officials cautioned that it still was too early to declare victory, with forecasters saying winds could pick up again and that hotspots were still smoldering in some areas.
“Don’t be complacent. There are still hazards out there,” Kit Bailey, a U.S. Forest Service chief, told hundreds of firefighters Friday morning. “It’s going to be a long, brutal summer.”
Authorities planned to let all evacuated residents back into the burned-out streets at 8 a.m. Saturday. On Friday residents were given limited access to some areas where all the destroyed homes are located ” welcome news to residents who had waited all week to see the devastation for themselves.
Keith Cooney, who works for a local title company, saw his rented home of three years engulfed in flames on a local news broadcast Sunday and came back to find only a bent metal garage door standing. He spotted a concrete swan given to him by a former neighbor in New Orleans, but not the fireproof box with his important papers.
“I gotta dig through this. This is going to be unbelievable,” Cooney said as the wind whispered through the blackened, charred leaves of several young aspen trees in the remains of his front yard.
A few people were so determined to sift through the ashes that they defied the evacuation orders and returned repeatedly on bicycles earlier Thursday. They were arrested for trespassing, said El Dorado Sheriff’s Deputy Phil Chovanec.
Roommates Stephanie Bant, 25, and Heather Gann, 23, stood by a half-burnt home that showed the fire’s capricious nature. Milk and beer were still in the refrigerator, which stood in a pitch black kitchen. The back door and windows were gone, and led to the charred remains of a deck.
Bant’s bed lay in a melted and burned mass of bedding and blackened coils, while Gann’s piano stood untouched in the other bedroom. The two renters didn’t seem too fazed, and were happy their snowboards had survived. Access to the mountains and lake is why they live in Lake Tahoe, they said.
“We’re better off than a lot of people,” Bant said.
Associated Press Writers Amanda Fehd, Scott Lindlaw and Robert Jablon contributed to this report