Blaze calms; firefighters leaving Tahoe |

Blaze calms; firefighters leaving Tahoe

Laura Kurtzman

Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune / With ashes blowing in the wind, Jim Mueller gets some help from firefightrs while sifting through the remains of his home Friday morning.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE (AP) — Firefighters streamed out of the Lake Tahoe region Saturday as danger from the blaze appeared to pass and evacuated residents returned to the charred remains of their homes.

The number of firefighters on the scene fell to about 700 by Saturday night from more than 2,000 at the fire’s peak, and more would be sent home as the blaze continued to shrink, said John Daugherty, a fire information officer.

The fire, which destroyed 3,100 acres, still had some active hot spots, but remaining fire crews had those under control, Daugherty said.

“The winds were a little stronger than predicted. It was still a good day,” he said.

Plans to reopen roads in the most damaged areas to the general public were scrapped for the weekend after residents returning to sift through the wreckage complained about the possibility of gawkers.

A U.S. Forest Service investigation identified the cause of the destructive blaze as an illegal campfire built in a campfire-restricted area, authorities said Friday. Officials said there was no evidence it was deliberately set to spark the devastating wildfire that has destroyed more than 250 homes and displaced about 3,500 people.

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Donna Deaton, an investigator for the U.S. Forest Service, said the fire was built about a quarter-mile south of Seneca Pond, a popular recreation area south of Lake Tahoe. There were no suspects, she said.

Two previous days of mild winds allowed Tahoe crews to surround the blaze, which officials said was 85 percent contained Saturday night. Full containment was expected Tuesday.

Meanwhile, north of Los Angeles, fire crews had a 12,400-acre blaze 80 percent contained, with full containment expected Tuesday, state fire department spokesman Rick Espino said Saturday.

“We still have some areas of concern, but it’s looking pretty good,” Espino said.

Firefighting costs had reached more than $5.9 million, and four crew members had been injured battling the blaze that destroyed 12 homes and six outbuildings since it broke out Sunday night in steep canyons south of the San Joaquin Valley, officials said.

Dozens of residents of the Oak Creek Canyon area who were ordered to leave their homes because of the fire Sunday night were permitted to return at about 3 p.m. Friday, fire department spokesman Martin Johnson said.

State fire spokesman Rick Espino says investigators believe the fire was “human-caused” and an all-terrain vehicle was seen leaving the area. But the exact cause of the fire was not known.

— Associated Press Writers Robert Jablon, Jacob Adelman and Sudhin Thanawala contributed to this report.