Community members will have to rely on one another to rebuild |

Community members will have to rely on one another to rebuild

Jeff Ackerman

Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune / A tearful Cheryl Pickney, right, shows her father, Edward Schlinger, a mug she gave to her mother before she passed away a year ago. The mug was one of only a few items that survived the Angora Fire in Schlinger's Zuni Avenue home.

One day soon — when the national news cameras have moved on to the next top news story and the flood of out-of-town volunteers have returned to their homes — the residents of South Lake Tahoe will be left to pick up the pieces.

David Stuart knows that better than most. It’s been more than three years since a 91,000-acre fire killed four people and destroyed more than 900 homes in Stuart’s San Bernardino Mountain community of Lake Arrowhead. Stuart came to South Lake Tahoe this week to offer some good advice to a community that will move through many difficult steps toward recovery.

“Everybody waits for the cavalry to arrive,” said Stuart. “The people on the line right now – the firefighters, police and others – are the pros. They are here to get the situation under control. Once they leave then comes the Red Cross, Small Business Association, maybe FEMA and others. But none of them are here for the long haul. The community will have to be its own cavalry.”

In the Arrowhead fire, which began in late October 2003, more than 80,000 people were evacuated.

“We’d planned ahead of time, so the evacuation was pretty smooth,” said Stuart. “Two weeks later, when we returned, it was 30 degrees outside. Winter had set in, and we had 445 people who had lost their businesses.”

It took an early-season snowfall to finally stop what later became known as the “Old fire.”

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That fire was impetus for “Rebuilding Mountain Hearts & Lives (,” a nonprofit group that Stuart now heads.

“Everyone in your (South Lake Tahoe) community is impacted by this fire,” said Stuart. “Those who lost their homes, certainly, but also the businesses, employees and others. There are several emotional stages a community goes through after a disaster like this. We had more than 14,000 people who had professional counseling on one level or another. Especially the children.”

The Oakland/Berkeley firestorm of 1991, which killed 25 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes, spawned a book titled, ” Disaster Recovery Handbook and Household Inventory Guide,” designed to help communities prepare and recover from natural, or manmade disasters. Stuart brought 400 copies of the book to South Lake Tahoe and will be giving them away through the South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce (or you can e-mail Stuart at

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Stuart warned. “And it could take many years before South Lake Tahoe really looks like a community again. It’s been three years for us (Arrowhead) and in one area we lost 300 homes and only 50 or so have been rebuilt so far.”

For those who lost their homes, Stuart offers this advice: “Do not sign any contracts, and do not hire a public insurance adjuster right now. Deal directly with your insurance company and if there is a need for an adjuster, it will come much later. The two people you want to deal with right now are your family and your insurance company.”

Scam artists do their best business in times of disaster, preying on the most vulnerable, said Stuart. “They come to town and say they will take complete control of your reconstruction project. You give them a down-payment and they disappear.”

If you must start reconstruction immediately, Stuart strongly suggests you make sure to use a licensed contractor.

“We have a group that will be returning to South Lake Tahoe in a few weeks and we hope to work with the Chamber on a series of building forums on how to deal with contractors and others involved in the process,” said Stuart. “We have a lot of people who have been through this and they will be available to help you through the process.”

— Writer Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union in Grass Valley and former Tahoe Daily Tribune managing editor.