Fireworks take back seat
A wildfire burning out of control east of Heavenly Ski resort has consumed more than 200 acres and several hundred Upper Kingsbury Grade residents have been evacuated, officials said.
The fire began around 12:40 p.m. just east of Heavenly Gondola Towers 11 and 12. A couple traveling down the gondola reported smoke to the resort.
As of 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, 420 firefighters, eight air tankers, seven helicopters, 50 engines and 12 handcrews were battling the fire.
Officials fear the fire will move over the ridge this morning.
“It’s a heavily timbered area. We’re well staffed and its maybe 5 percent contained and it’s definitely burning out of control,” said Maribeth Gustafson, a U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin supervisor. “We have a voluntary evacuation that could affect as many as 5000 people.”
The fire is well away from Highway 50, the casino corridor and most primary recreation areas, she said.
“It started adjacent to the gondola. We don’t know the cause,” Gustafson said.
The burning property belongs to Nevada State Parks, U.S. Forest Service and California Tahoe Conservancy District.
Heavenly Ski Resort property is intact except for spot fires burning near Stagecoach and Boulder lifts, said Tim Smith, fire chief at Tahoe-Douglas Fire Protection District.
“This fire is real long, not real wide — it’s really going up the side of a mountain,” Smith said. “By midday we’ll probably have a better grasp on the size. Hopefully by then, if the weather is favorable, we’ll have some containment.”
Smoke was visible from Truckee to Reno, some 50 miles away with wind gusts clocked between 20-30 mph.
“The biggest challenge is the wind, fuels, terrain and access,” said Kit Bailey, Forest Service fire management officer at the basin.
Tankers, bombers and helicopters dropped red fire retardant and water on the flames, which are spreading by catching on trees and jumping with wind gusts, Bailey said.
The areas of upper Kingsbury Grade, from East Benjamin Drive to the top of Daggett Summit, were evacuated on a voluntary basis.
“There are spot fires right on top of the ridge,” Smith said. “The main body of the fire is still below that. But the winds (on the ridge) blow up to 30 mph every night until 11 p.m.”
As of press time, the fire is moving away from the Stateline casino corridor in an easterly direction. The Ridge Tahoe and other homes at Upper Kingsbury are threatened, but fire protection is in place, Smith said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Ridge Tahoe employees were out protecting their place of work using the timeshare’s foam-fire protection system.
All available fire resources on both the Nevada and California sides were responding, as well as fire protection agencies from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and fire agencies throughout the basin, Douglas County, Washoe County and Carson City.
Until around 2 p.m., 110 people on Heavenly’s gondola were trapped at the top of the gondola and on the lookout area. They were safely evacuated, said Todd Crawford, El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Service coordinator.
Forest Service officials first estimated the fire to cover about 3 acres but said it had spread to 25 acres by mid-afternoon and to 100 acres by 4:30 p.m. and 200-plus by 8:30 p.m.
The fire is a tragedy, said South Lake Tahoe Mayor Brooke Laine. “It’s heart- wrenching. What we are looking at, we knew could happen. It’s sad to see our worst fears coming true.
“We’ve got brave people out there; real professionals who know what they are doing,” Laine said. “I’m confident they will do their best to keep the community safe. “
An announcement will be made this afternoon as to whether a fireworks show scheduled over Lake Tahoe will go on as planned.
“We will make a decision tomorrow by mid-day,” said Tom McKinnon, internal communication manager at Harrah’s, which is putting on the event. “It will be up the firefighters, what they are doing and where they are at. Right now we are hoping it will still happen.”
Sue Schlerf, interim city manager for South Lake Tahoe said the responsibility of the fire rests with the Forest Service and other agencies.
“It’s not our incident. We are providing as many resources as we can to whoever needs it. We are waiting for the latest decisions and will make them with the best information possible,” Schlerf said.
The fire is one of the largest in recent memory, Smith said.
“There’s no question in my 30 years in the basin this is the largest fire,” Smith said. “Next largest I can recall was at Glenbrook in 1980 or 1981. That got to about 100 acres before a snowstorm stopped it.”