Downed lines spark early morning fires
Two power lines knocked down by forceful winds started a pair of fires early Thursday morning, forcing fire officials out of bed and a voluntary evacuation of two neighborhoods.
The first and more serious blaze started near the post office on Black Bart Avenue about 2:45 a.m. It fanned quickly east from gusts that ranged between 25 and 35 mph, according to Kit Bailey, fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service.
Called the Pioneer fire for its proximity to Pioneer Trail, its hellish flames covered 30 acres and jumped Al Tahoe Boulevard before being contained by 100 firefighters and rain at 8 a.m.
The fire shut down parts of Pioneer Trail and Al Tahoe Boulevard throughout the morning.
The second fire was located on the left side of the Baldwin Beach entrance. It started about 3 a.m. and ignited when a pine nearly 3-feet in diameter was blown into a power line.
“It was interesting having to chain up, following a snowplow around Emerald Bay to get to a wildland fire,” said Meeks Bay Fire District firefighter John Black.
The Baldwin fire charred 5 acres on land dotted with trees and brush. About 50 firefighters contained it at 6:30 a.m., but crews were busy handling spot fires and falling charred trees.
“The spot fires are a problem,” said Paul Tyler, a U.S. Forest Service fire investigator. “They start as little tinkle bells under the (tree) canopies.”
The downed power line at the Baldwin fire disconnected power for at least 20 residents at Cascade and Spring Creek neighborhoods.
“It came across here pretty fast,” said John Lilygren, South Lake Tahoe battalion chief, about the Pioneer fire.
Structures were threatened but none was damaged.
The fire was fed by downed trees and dry brush. Some believed the Pioneer Fire was related to prescribed burns in the area, but the origin of the fire was not near or tied to the prescribed burn areas, said Rex Norman, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.
Residents on the Pioneer Village and Glenwood neighborhoods were awakened with news of advisory evacuations.
Jim Rahbari, who moved to South Lake Tahoe from Concord two weeks ago, said he heard a cacophony of sirens before being rustled out of bed by police officers who told him of the advisory evacuation.
Rahbari and family took clothes and food before leaving their A-frame on Matheson Drive amid fire trucks and ambulances. He described the night as a “bright, burning sky.”
“We threw everything in the car,” Rahbari said. “We drove around and went to the Safeway parking lot. It was snowing. It was beautiful.”
Re-elected to the South Lake Tahoe City Council on Tuesday, Hal Cole was awakened by police about 3 a.m. telling him to corral his four horses that were grazing on land near the fire.
Cole admitted he was scared.
“I went out and I saw the fire crowning above the trees,” he said. “You go through all the usual stuff. What do I take? What do I leave?”
While nervously watching embers fly and rooting against the rapid winds, Cole was thankful when the gales died down and snow began to fall. Sleep-deprived Cole and Rahbari praised the efforts of firefighters who successfully battled the blaze without damage to any structures.
Ken Sands had gone outside about 3:30-4 a.m. to see what damage the wind might be doing when he saw the sky aglow and thick smoke, which filled his lungs.
“He saw the neighbors loading their stuff into a truck,” said his partner Jonquil Petterson. “People said we better evacuate.”
The couple ended up going to 7-Eleven to get coffee to wake and warm themselves up as they feared for what might become of their home near Glenwood Drive.
They packed up what money they had in the house, a couple of lock boxes, an overnight cosmetics bag, warm clothes and sleeping bags — plus their 5-pound mixed breed dog.
They were away from their house for about 90 minutes. A firefighter stopped by 7-Eleven and gave them the all-clear notice.
At 9:45 a.m., a steady drizzle helped firefighters douse hot spots. Every so often, trees would be heard cracking, then falling.
Bailey, speaking from inside a U.S. Forest Service Chevy Yukon while sharing time between the fires, admitted he hardly slept Wednesday night because of the winds.
“Power lines and trees don’t mix well together,” he said.
Lance Bledsoe, 25, received a phone call from his friend about the Pioneer fire after coming home from Lakeside Inn and Casino to his Ralph Street residence about 2 a.m. Bledsoe grabbed a video camera, hiked into the fire with his friend and later came out running, worried for his life.
He described a scene of calm fires, flames about 5 feet high and 20 feet from his camera lens. Suddenly the wind came alive, and breathed life into the flames that reared up to 40 feet high, Bledsoe said.
“When it grew I backed up but I was still trying to videotape it,” Bledsoe said. “We started screaming. It was taking on feet per second. We were running and the fire was catching us. My heart went to my throat. I was definitely scared. Adrenaline was pumping through me but the footage I got is priceless in memory and what I’ll be able to show people.”
— Contact William Ferchland at firstname.lastname@example.org
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SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — A flash flood watch has been extended for the Lake Tahoe area.