Tahoma woman loses home to fire; Community rallies to support

A Tahoma woman lost her home to fire earlier this month.
Provided/Ed Miller

TAHOMA, Calif. — During the early morning on Sunday, Dec. 11, Tahoma resident Karen Nielsen experienced every homeowners worst nightmare when her fire alarms pulled her from deep sleep and she woke up and smelled smoke. 

That weekend, Lake Tahoe received a record amount of snow, which Nielsen, who lives alone, prepared for in the days leading up to the storm. On the evening of Dec. 10, her power flickered but never went out.

It was around 3:30 a.m. when Nielsen rushed around her home to find the source of the smoke.

“When I woke up, I flicked on the light and the house was filled with smoke,” Nielsen said. 

She went into the basement where the smoke was thickest but didn’t see flames. 

“So, I went outside and I saw on the side of the house where my electrical panel is, I saw that it was glowing and I thought, ‘oh god,’” Nielsen, who said she is in her 50s. 

The fire started in the electrical panel.

She called the fire department, then called her neighbor, Ed Miller, who is Board President for the Meeks Bay Fire Protection District.

“The minute I stepped out of my house, I could see the glow,” Miller said, adding because of his age and the amount of snow, it took him a long time to get to her.

She then went back into the house to change into her snow clothes and by the time she went back out, the panel had burst into flames. 

“I called the fire department back and I was panicking, I was crying and saying, ‘can you get here, there’s flames now,’” Nielsen said. 

However, nearly four feet of snow had fallen overnight and the fire department was unable to quickly get to the home. She tried to use snow to put the fire out herself but it eventually grew and she gave up. 

“So, I went to the middle of the street and just kind of sat there and watched my house burn to the ground,” Nielsen said. 

Miller spent years as a firefighter and has experience with house fires but still said it was an awful experience.

“It was terrifying, even when you’ve seen those things, it’s still horrible,” Miller said.

Emergency personnel struggle to reach the home due to a fresh 4 feet of snow.
Provided/Ed Miller

Meeks Bay Fire employees found a private snow blower from Tillery Snow Removal to clear the path to her home but clearing snow was slow going. It was about an hour after she called that they were finally able to make it to the house. 

“They were great, you know, they felt bad they couldn’t get there … they did the best they could,” Nielsen said. 

“It’s not often members of the Board of Directors get to see our crews in action … but watching them that night made me extremely proud,” Miller said.

He added that there was nothing Nielsen did wrong that night and that because of the age of the house, it likely would’ve still been lost even if the roads were plowed.

While losing her home was a harrowing experience for Nielsen, her positivity and gratitude to the community is astounding.

Nielsen, who is originally from Southern California, said it was because of the community that she is able to maintain such a positive attitude. 

“[The community] is not like anywhere else, this wouldn’t have happened in L.A. People rallied around me … I’m a pretty independent woman and it just was a really nice feeling,” Nielsen said.

Miller and his wife, Lolly, took her in for the rest of the morning and gave her clothes. She then called Sunnyside Restaurant & Lodge to book a room. After hearing her story, they gave her a room, and provided her with pajamas, food — and alcohol. 

Miller also added that her post on NextDoor received a lot of support.

“It’s a pretty typical response for Tahoma,” Miller said.

Another thing she says saved her life was her smoke detectors. 

“If those didn’t go off, I wouldn’t have woken up. I didn’t used to check my smoke detectors but now I tell people, ‘you really have to, it’s important,’” Nielsen said. 

Nielsen had moved into the home full-time in August but the cabin had been in her family for 25 years. She said she has insurance and fully intends to rebuild. 

She is currently staying with her daughter in Southern California. 

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.