Update 5:30 a.m. Sheriff spokesman: 220 homes and structures destroyed, county awaits state emergency declaration
A state of emergency was issued for El Dorado County, with 220 homes and structures reportedly destroyed Sunday and hundreds more threatened early this morning as South Lake Tahoe’s worst fire in half a century consumed more than 2,000 acres and sent hundreds of people fleeing for safety.
No injuries have been reported, but the major blaze prompted by severe wind gusts was still burning with only 5 percent containment, officials said. Hundreds of spot fires erupted as embers blew through the air. Popping sounds like gunfire cracked across the sky as trees burst into flames.
El Dorado County Sheriff’s spokesman Kevin House reported 220 homes or structures burned or destroyed in an early morning interview with CNN. U.S. Forest Service officials haven’t confirmed that number.
Mass evacuations of residents were ordered in the North Upper Truckee and Tahoe Mountain areas ” where the fire shot up the ridge and burned homes on Mule Deer Road, Coyote Ridge Circle, Mount Rainier Drive, Clear View Drive on up to Uplands Way near Angora Ridge. All but two homes had burned on Pyramid Circle.
About six evacuees were at the South Lake Tahoe Recreation Center early Monday morning, including 97-year-old Leaphy Peck, who escaped from her apartment.
“I had planned to stay at home but the apartment manager knocked on the door and told me to leave,” Peck said while watching televised coverage of the fire. “I called a cab and they brought me here. I plan to go back later.”
Others who lost their homes have been staying within Stateline’s casino corridor where several of the hotels have offered free or reduced rate lodging and free food vouchers for those who lost their homes.
“This is the worst fire I can recall,” said Mayor Kathay Lovell. “It just shows you the power of this. It’s heartbreaking. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. We’ve got Lake Valley firefighters who are fighting the fire and who have lost their homes.”
By 11 p.m., the fire was burning close to South Tahoe High School threatening structures there. Firefighters were dousing hot spots in the trees around the school, according to witnesses.
Two sports utility vehicles had been damaged, as more than 400 firefighters from agencies across the region, including Sacramento Metro Fire Department, fought back the flames that raged across Tahoe Paradise. Five air tankers and two helicopters assisted several ground crews.
Kit Bailey, the agency’s fire chief incident commander for the U.S. Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, said the wind was hampering efforts for fire crews and delayed air tankers early on. The call came in at 2:14 p.m.
The blaze is under investigation, with wind being the culprit for its rapid spread.
Flames were being fanned by winds of up to 25 mph with gusts of up to 35 mph by Sunday evening, the National Weather Service in Reno reported.
“They’re definitely having problems with the winds up there,” said Linda Curran of the U.S. Forest Service Camino Interagency Dispatch Center. “The fire has a rapid rate of spread because of the winds.”
People frantically drove out of the North Upper Truckee Road area, and others could be seen running on foot. A motorcycle rider was seen getting off his bike and putting out a fire on a bank.
A homeowner, Jim Ferguson, who lives on Coyote Ridge Circle, sprinted down North Upper Truckee toward the “Y” saying: “There’s not much you can do.”
A tearful Carla Ennis sat distraught in a car with her neighbor at a checkpoint established at Sawmill Road and Lake Tahoe Boulevard. She was concerned about her dog supposedly in her Clear View Drive home.
“I can’t get to my house,” she said, while receiving a gesture from a police officer to move back out of danger.
Roads were closed at North Upper Truckee at Highway 50 all the way to Lake Tahoe Boulevard. At one point, authorities alerted residents on Gardner Mountain that afternoon to be prepared for evacuation. Those warnings to be prepared came into the night time as well.
Traffic controls were in effect on Highway 50 in Meyers to make way for the large volume of vehicles leaving North Upper Truckee Road. Some motorists were hanging out of their cars and trucks in awe of the spectacle. Through the afternoon, people lined up on Highway 89 to watch the incident.
A huge smoke plume could be seen for miles around the Reno-Tahoe area and as far away as Jackson.
“We thought it was a thunderhead cloud over the Sierra, but realized differently once we got near Kirkwood on Highway 88,” Kelly Davis of Reno said in an e-mail to the Tahoe Daily Tribune.
Jordan Morgenstern was out shooting video for a Internet outfit and was right at Angora Creek Road when the fire broke out. Fire crews had not yet arrived.
“The trees were going up like spirals. The sound was like a freight train,” Morgenstern said.
The smoke was so dark he lost his sense of direction.
“It was black and intense,” he said.
Morgenstern, who was at the command center at the airport later Sunday afternoon, said he sold his video footage to NBC for $300.
Some residents, such as Marla Meredith, were out on Lake Tahoe Sunday afternoon but headed back in when they saw the smoke. She was not allowed to go to her home in the evacuation area, on Grizzly Mountain Road. If she had been, she would have retrieved her computer, she said.
Meredith was part of a crowd that had gathered in the area of Lake Tahoe Boulevard and D Street, where they shared stories, talked on cell phones, or quietly reflected on the fire.
Terry Carroll, owner of Apollo Plumbing and Heating, was there with 21 cases of bottled of water, which he brought for anyone who might need it.
Carroll also brought his truck with a 500-gallon tank full of water, in case it was needed by firefighters or others.
“We just have to help where we can,” he said.
The Angora fire headed in a northwesterly direction from the Upper Truckee neighborhood before stopping at the Angora ridge and moving east. But the winds shifted through the afternoon.
“I can’t stay on the phone. We just got a notice to evacuate,” said Gloria Hildinger of the Angora Lakes Resort. “The smoke is getting pretty thick. It’s probably two miles away and we’re hoping it won’t reach here.”
Residents evacuating their homes were a common sight on South Lake Tahoe streets on Sunday afternoon, their cars piled high with passengers, personal belongings such as snowboards, and perhaps even a pet sitting on a someone’s lap.
The command post for firefighters was moved to the Lake Tahoe Airport.
South Lake Tahoe City Manager Dave Jinkens, who was staged at the command post, took the incident as a wakeup call to Tahoe residents.
“Certainly as you know in the basin, until our fuels are reduced, there’s always the potential for catastrophic fire,” he said.
Fire agencies are adopting a plan to avert such a disaster.
South Lake Tahoe’s last major blaze was the Gondola fire of 2002, which started with a cigarette butt and burned the Nevada ridge that created a swath across Heavenly Mountain Resort.
El Dorado County issued a proclamation of emergency on Sunday afternoon, said county Supervisor Norma Santiago. The proclamation is the first step in getting an emergency proclamation from the governor.
That will get the wheels turning for financial assistance from the state for repairs and cleanup from the disaster, Santiago said. The amount of the funding, and whether it would cover damage to private as well as public property, remains to be determined, she said.
In addition, Santiago heard from a representative of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office, inquiring if federal assistance might be needed.
“It saddens me that we’ve seen such loss,” Santiago said, adding that she’ll be working to help people rebuild and get back into their homes as quickly as possible.
” The Associated Press contributed to this report
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