Investigators request Gondola Fire photos
Fire officials are asking anyone to come forward who witnessed someone flick a cigarette that ignited the 670-acre Gondola Fire on July 3 near Heavenly Ski Resort.
U. S. Forest Service Special Agent Dave Cotter has dozens of photographs and two videotapes from Heavenly gondola riders who shot the initial stages of the wildland fire.
“What we’re looking for is somebody out there who doesn’t know if they might have important pictures,” Cotter said. “Most people think they may not have something that can help us, but it could be the piece to put this thing together.”
Cotter credited Heavenly gondola employees when they wrote down the names and addresses of gondola riders who were in the cars when the blaze began.
A perimeter has been marked off around the origin of the fire. The cause, once described as “carelessly discarded smoking material,” has been confirmed as a cigarette, Cotter said.
He remains unsure from where the cigarette was flicked.
“It’s possible it came from the gondola or somebody hiking through the area,” he said. “That area has several different trails that are frequently used by locals. It gets more use than most people would realize.”
Fuel conditions at Lake Tahoe are ripe for a cigarette to cause a fire, Cotter said.
Tahoe has an abundance of duff, decomposing material, and soft and spongy logs in forests, Cotter said. At the origin of the fire, light duff and pine needles helped fuel the fire.
Other conditions need to be met including type of fuel, sun exposure, relative humidity level, wind and the direction the cigarette landed.
The relative humidity needed for a cigarette to start a blaze is 13 percent or under. Firefighters first on the scene found the level to be at 10 percent.
A smoldering cigarette that lands directly in front of or behind wind emits the most heat compared to it landing sideways. The flicked cigarette landed below the gondola, away from the wind, Cotter said.
“In this particular case all the conditions needed for the fire to occur were met,” Cotter said.
The fire investigator is continuing to follow leads. His day is full interviewing witnesses all over the world, including England and New Zealand.
People with information, pictures or video of the early stages of the fire are asked to call Dave Cotter at (530) 573-2629. Anonymous calls are welcome.