One year later: Residents recover from Angora Fire
Sun News Service
A sunny afternoon. A breeze. Children fishing at Sawmill Pond.
This past Sunday afternoon was no different than Sunday, June 24, 2007, with one exception: On that day, a fire started that would ravage entire blocks and acres of forest south of South Lake Tahoe. The Angora fire brought a community to its knees and was the most destructive and costliest natural disaster in Lake Tahoe’s history.
One year after the fire, some people are willing to tell you their versions of the Angora inferno. And each story is different.
Tara Brennan and Tony Colombo were in the Bay Area on business when the fire started. Their adult adopted daughter, Sara, called them on a cell phone and told them that their neighborhood was on fire.
Brennan began driving toward Highway 50. Sara began packing up Brennan’s priorities: Four parrots, two cats and two dogs. She had less than 15 minutes to do it, and on the way out, Sara and her friend Sayers Tanner watched one of the cars in the driveway burn to cinders.
On this past Sunday afternoon, Brennan and Colombo stood on the patio outside the shell of their rebuilt home where they had cooked and enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner last November. Their new home, which is far from complete, she says, has been standing as a shell since about June 1.
“Everyone asks me why I decided to rebuild,” Brennan said. “I tell them my roots are deeper here than the tallest pine tree on the property. I bought the house when I was young and single, and I’m rebuilding this home much older and wiser.”
While planting trees, raking and shoveling soil Sunday, Brennan and Colombo said they decided to rebuild even though they were “grossly” underinsured.
“We’re putting everything and our life savings back into this,” Colombo said. “The memories were all lost in the old house. We will make some new memories.”
Ten months after the Angora fire swept through his Pyramid Court home, Stan Freeman began moving his belongings into his new, reconstructed house.
“It’s good for people to know that this place is being rebuilt and that people are coming back,” Freeman said in March. “My lot was one of the first cleaned up, and I’m delighted to be one of the first to return home.”
According to the El Dorado County Building Department, 157 homes are in the permit pipeline. Of them, 88 currently are under construction.
If Freeman was the first to move back into his neighborhood, Tom Nimitz, who lives at 1480 Mount Olympia Circle, was the second.
Nimitz, a contractor, was able to get his site plans to the county within days after the fire. Once the shell went up, he was able to move his family in, also in March. Nowadays, Nimitz spends his spare time building the inside of his home and helping friends with their home.
Nimitz said the past year has been trying for himself and his two children, a 7-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son. His daughter was mostly fine, he said. But his son had a tough time of it.
“But he did real well in school. He got a B average, and I’m good with that this year,” Nimitz said.
When asked how he has gotten through the year, Nimitz didn’t hesitate to answer:
“I vented. If I didn’t vent, I would have pulled my hair out,” he said. “You vent with the other ‘burnies’ when you can, because you share the same stories and are going through the same things, especially with all the red tape.”
George Miskovsky vividly remembers June 24, 2007.
A metal-detector hobbyist who lives on the West Slope near Placerville, Miskovsky is the Angora burn area’s building inspector. He was on his way up to the lake to look for buried treasures when he saw the smoke.
“I knew it was bad once I got inside the basin,” he said as he inspected a home on Mount Rainier last week.
Miskovsky deals primarily with contractors during home inspections and said he has seen something very unusual with the Angora burn area builders. With years as a private contractor himself, he knows builders can be temperamental.
But not this time, and not within the confines of this construction area.
“I would have expected a lot of hassles, like when you’re dealing with (tract) homes. But it’s real teamwork up here, and everyone needs to be commended,” he said. “Everyone understands, from the county side to the builders, that we must to keep moving.”
South Lake Tahoe Realtor Sue Abrams’ home suffered major damage in the fire.
During the fire and in the year since, she has been an outspoken voice among fire victims. While some consider her coarse approach intimidating, Abrams pointed out fire-safety and defensible-space flaws in the area a year before the fire started – even having a series of three community meetings in 2006.
Abrams is as well-informed and passionate today as she was a year ago, but she now is more cynical. Abrams says she has no faith in local leadership and says much of what is done carries a photo opportunity with it.
“None of this should have happened,” she said. “It could have been prevented. Homeowners in the area wanted to make the improvements, and we put it on the fast track. And it came to a halt.”
She blames local fire agencies and fire-safe commissions.
Abrams says red tape got in the way of a community fire-safe plan in 2006 and 2007. What’s done is done, she said. Now, her focus is on the aftermath, and the toxins and particulate matter that she insists remain in the fire area.
The county has said levels are safe in the area, but it’s the airborne particulate matter that concerns Abrams. Air tests were done in the fire area when the land was wet, she said. When the moisture is gone and the wind begins to blow, people in the area are getting toxic whiffs of poisons such as asbestos and other chemicals.
“The majority of the subdivisions, everything that was in these homes, turned to ash. You have plastics, batteries, anything you can imagine becomes particulate matter that you cannot see or smell. But it is there.”
Some have privately complained of respiratory infections. Abrams said she has tried to bring this up to local, county and state environmental agencies.
“The biggest thing we should be doing now for the community is we should acknowledge the environmental damage they are putting under the carpet,” Abrams said. “We should let the facts come out about the poisonous toxins that remain in that region. They have not been properly removed, and the agencies know this.”
There are others who have decided not to return to the area.
Last fall, Melissa “Missy” Springer, a longtime employee at Camp Richardson Resort, and her husband, Al, decided rebuilding their lives at Lake Tahoe would be too difficult. So they moved to Seattle.
“We gave up reluctantly,” Springer told the Tribune last November. “When you’ve got that battle of rebuilding, it keeps you grounded. When you rent, you truly are cut adrift.”
For John and Louise Simon, who lived at 1014 Coyote Ridge, the strains of red tape was one of the reasons the couple decided not to rebuild. They had lived on the property for 20 years.
There are a combination of factors as to why they chose to relocate on the South Shore, said Simon, a Tahoe Daily Tribune advertising account executive. “There was a six-month dispute with El Dorado County over land coverage, which was finally reconciled, but it still took six months,” he said.
And the price of homes has gotten to where it might be a better financial move to buy right now and rebuild at a later date, he said. The couple still own the quarter-acre lot. He has spent this spring planting trees and shrubs.
The decision not to rebuild was a difficult one, he said.
“I lived there for 20 years, and even to this day, I feel emotional every time I go out there,” he said.