Disaster stemmed by valiant firefighting and favorable winds | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Disaster stemmed by valiant firefighting and favorable winds

Rob Bhatt

Two boys torturing a gasoline-soaked lizard one year ago today took minutes to prove what area forestry experts have warned about for years. Namely, years of drought complicated by bark beetle infestation has made the Tahoe Basin and surrounding areas a tinderbox ready to erupt.

It was 2:19 p.m. on June 23, 1996 that the first call came in about a fire burning through sage and bitterbrush off Autumn Hills Drive.

The fire danger was rated very high to extreme that day, recalled Jim Reinhardt, chief of the East Fork Fire and Paramedic District. A small fire near Topaz Lake and another off Johnson Lane had broken out earlier that day, and many of East Fork’s 250 volunteers were on alert.

Otis Turner, then deputy state forester for the Nevada Division of Forestry, was the duty officer that day. On his way to the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center in Minden for unrelated business, he pulled over to call in the fire before finishing his drive to the Airport Road facility.

Less than 10 minutes later, he was on the phone with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Management.

“With the amount of smoke it was creating and the way it was spreading, you just knew,” Turner said last week. “This was the one you’ve been training for for years and years. That’s why you call for so many units immediately.”

Turner’s call began the process that would enable the NDF to recoup much of the fire suppression costs from the Federal Emergency Management Administration.

During the height of the battle against a fire that would consume 3,400 acres, roughly half of which was private land, about 815 crews fought the blaze.

By most accounts, Autumn Hills could have been a lot worse.

Even though four homes were destroyed, a valiant assault by more than 200 firefighters from agencies between Sparks and Lake Tahoe were vital to saving hundreds more.

Crews from more than a dozen agencies leapfrogged from house to house to establish positions along a fire front that whizzed by them in erratic, gusty winds.

“It was pretty extreme,” said Brian Shafer, assistant chief for the Lake Valley Fire Protection District and a strike team leader at ground zero. “It was pushing the envelope of what you could do for structure protection.”

Pete Anderson, forest stewardship coordinator for the NDF, described the initial burn area as an old stand of fast-burning bitterbrush and sage, dried from drought and between 8 and 10 feet tall.

Firefighters had little hope to stop the flames.

Had there been no structures, they probably would not have even put themselves in the thick of it.

But there were homes to protect.

In many areas, the strategy was to douse property with water, let the fire front pass and then return to extinguish embers left in the flames’ wake.

Most of the damage – destruction of four homes and damage to another 20 outbuildings – occurred during the first two hours in and around the heart of the fire.

Perhaps the greatest testament to the firefighters’ professionalism would come in the days and weeks following the fire. Amid blackened fields, houses remained intact, while, with minor exceptions, the firefighters themselves avoided injury.

But, there was no time for back-patting on this afternoon as crews prepared for the next battle against a fire that still raged.

Steep slopes of dried pine and fir provided a natural, chimney-like chute for the flames to race to the top of Kingsbury Grade and roughly 400 homes perched at the top of the ridge.

It was 4:36 p.m. when Tim Smith, chief of the Tahoe-Douglas Fire Protection District, heard the dispatcher’s somber message from his position outside the Ridge Tahoe.

It’s a firestorm.

It’s burning out of control.

And it’s heading for your location.

“I still recall vividly what the fire looked like that Sunday afternoon,” Smith said in retrospect. “We had said for many years that a fire of this magnitude was possible, but we hoped it never would (happen).”

Downslope winds slowed the fire’s spread up the mountainside.

As the threat to homes on the valley floor subsided, units repositioned themselves for what promised to be an all-out war.

But in the hours that followed, the weather was the savior.

Winds from the west kept the flames from reaching the summit that afternoon, and as temperatures cooled down at dusk, so did the fire’s intensity.

Monday morning was greeted by a cold front accompanied later in the day by rain and snow.

What if … the wind died down … or it was August 23 instead of June 23, giving the fuel load two more summer months to dry out?

“It would have been a different story,” Turner said. “It would have been in the Tahoe Basin.”

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