Evacuees start returning home
It almost seemed like an avalanche control line, as cars backed up and people hopped out of the driver’s seat for a look.
But the line of vehicles Tuesday morning off Highway 50 onto North Upper Truckee were not skiers or stranded tourists, but evacuated residents returning to their homes.
The houses were still standing, unlike others past Wintoon Drive, where the remaining hundreds of other evacuees weren’t allowed to pass.
Those with homes in the burn zone possibly could be escorted with officials into the area Thursday. Proof of residency is required, such as a driver’s license, mortgage papers or assessment documents.
Checkpoints were established to ensure valid entry. White shoe polish was used to mark cars of where cars were heading.
As more residents returned to their homes, a need to talk with neighbors emerged. Names of people who lost houses were exchanged, prompting gasps or heavy sighs or a shaking head.
Walter Gadomski was in the line early. During the evacuation Sunday he took his skis and mountain bike and passport, while his wife took important papers and family heirlooms.
Gadomski was working out at Sierra Athletic Club at the Tahoe Keys when he noticed the growing plume of smoke near his Pima Street home.
“I still have their towels, as a matter of fact,” he said. “Don’t tell (owner) Joe (Pettit).”
Gadomski and his wife stayed at a friend’s house on the East Shore at Crystal Air Drive. When he first arrived at his home, he gave a piece of salmon to his cat, Hugo, who was evacuated as well.
“We’re just happy,” he said while unloading his white Jeep Cherokee.
On Kickapoo Street, Mike Chandler was unhitching a trailer holding a golf cart and other items from a Nissan Titan. Chandler, the retired South Lake Tahoe Fire Depart-ment chief wearing Teva sandals and sporting a beard, knew a catastrophic Tahoe inferno loomed.
Chandler recalled a meeting with basin fire officials in 1999 envisioning a scenario of a fire erupting near Meyers, funneling down toward the Lake Tahoe Airport and the city of South Lake Tahoe. “It’s the very scene we’ve put together,” he said.
As Chandler and his wife, Sherry, along with Ron Mitchell, discussed the fire, Kickapoo slowly showed signs of life with sounds of voices and power tools.
“The street, except for the smoke, looks the same, but it won’t be the same,” said Sherry, her face covered with a breathing mask due to her sensitive sinuses.
As the couple sifted through the back of the Titan, they weren’t sure whether to take all of their possessions out of the truck with winds expected to pick up today.
“Fortunately this didn’t take place in the middle of the night,” Mike said.
“There is this strange silence. You know, things aren’t normal but what’s going to be normal?” Sherry said. “I’m dreading the drive down Lake Tahoe Boulevard.”
Rhonda Riggs also feared her first drive past the devastation. At her house at the end of Wintoon, Riggs fielded calls on her cell phone and an interview request from a television news crew.
As did others returning home, Riggs recalled her memories of the start and development of the Angora fire. She recalled seeing trees bursting into flames from her backyard, which faces U.S. Forest Service land.
“My chimes never stopped,” she said, recalling the gusty winds. “Bling, bling, bling. I was shaking in my boots.”
Riggs had two hours to prepare for evacuation. She kept calling for her cat, Handsome Charlie. Handsome Charlie safely returned home three minutes before Riggs left in a motor home.
As she spoke a man in an orange vest handed her a notice to shut off her gas.
“If it was winter I’d be upset because I’d be cold,” she said.
Riggs, a teacher at Bijou Community School, thought her house was destroyed while she and Handsome Charlie were evacuated. When she learned her house survived, she thought there would be more ash on her house and her deck would be damaged. The deck was untouched, save for some furniture and a yellow hose, roughly coiled.
Neighbors Sue Channel, a teacher at South Tahoe High School, and Sue Coppini, who works in child care, joined the patio discussion. The two Sues discovered a spilled trash bag filled with remnants of “Gatorade, water and ready-made meals” that was likely left by firefighters, Channel said.
In a battered blue truck, Peter Truszewski waited in line early. He was ready to go to his home on Kickapoo but recalled staying at a small house with good friends along South Upper Truckee.
“You can’t beat that,” he said.
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