Squaw Valley home burns to ground | SierraSun.com

Squaw Valley home burns to ground

Melissa Vinitsky, Sun news service

All that’s left of Steve Mitchell’s possessions is what he was wearing or had in his car last Thursday, when his home burned to the ground March 6. A filmmaker and longtime Squaw Valley resident, Mitchell’s life’s work also went up in smoke. While some of his camera equipment and footage may prove salvageable, he will have to rebuild his studio. Nevertheless, Mitchell considers himself lucky to be alive.

The fire marks the third in a series of accidents that have plagued Squaw Valley this year, starting with a near-fatal fight and the death of a Ski Corp employee.

The Squaw Valley Fire Department was notified of a fire at Mitchell’s house at 500 Squaw Valley Rd. at about 12:30 p.m. last Thursday. Due to multiple reports, the fire department rang a second alarm and requested aid from Alpine Meadows, North Tahoe, Northstar, and Truckee fire departments. With 16 firefighters and six chiefs on the scene within minutes of the first report, the fire took 20 minutes to contain.

According to SVFD Chief Peter Bansen, the fire was caused by ashes left either in a paper bag or mixed with trash on the front deck, which then ignited the deck and a nearby woodpile.

“Reports [from people calling in] of the front of the house on fire were consistent with what we found,” said Bansen.

The house, which Mitchell owned for nine years, was deemed by Bansen “a total loss.”

Fortunately, Mitchell’s E-Media Studios, an editing and production company he ran out of his home, was separated from the rest of the house by a stone wall. Bansen reported there was a good deal of smoke damage to the studio, but that many of the tapes and equipment were not completely destroyed.

On Thursday Mitchell was at Sugar Bowl filming for All Mountain Professionals when a friend called him on his cell phone to tell him about the fire.

“I was totally shocked. It was a weird, surreal type of thing,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave Sugar Bowl.”

Finally, a friend convinced him to head home. When he arrived, he found his house gone but his studio relatively intact.

“The studio is my whole life,” commented Mitchell, who said nothing in the room was burned but there was a thick film of soot everywhere. “There was an undetermined amount of smoke and heat damage.”

While homeowner’s insurance will cover damages to the house up to $300,000, Mitchell did not have business insurance.

“That’s the hard-hitting thing,” he said. “I lost a good chunk of post-production.”

Mitchell, who had two cameras with him at Sugar Bowl, says he will be able to continue filming, but as for the post-production side of his business, he will have to start over.

The heat of the house fire was so intense that all that’s left of the pots and pans are their handles, Mitchell said. In the studio, items that were higher on the walls melted. The room’s louver blinds are now “a pile of plastic.” The fire even burned the molding and rubber on his car, which was parked at the house, and peeled off the paint.

Mitchell lost all of his personal belongings in the fire, including old footage he kept for sentimental reasons, two pairs of brand new skis, and souvenirs from trips all over the world he collected while working for Passport to Adventure.

“I’m dealing with really two kinds of shock. One is losing the comforts of home and all the possessions that are dear to you,” he said. “The other is the overwhelming shock of dealing with everything. If I want a note pad, I either have to borrow it or buy it. The things I took for granted are gone.”

Mitchell, who is staying with his girlfriend in Tahoe Donner, has received clothes from friends and bought some with his insurance allowance.

“I have gotten good support from people. I have gotten calls from people I haven’t heard from in years,” he said.

Despite his catastrophic loss, Mitchell feels fortunate to be alive. He believes the ashes had been smoldering on the deck since Wednesday morning, when associates from New York who were staying with him cleaned out the fireplace and unwittingly left the ashes in a bag outside.

“The core nugget that makes me less upset over the loss of property was that the ashes were smoldering that night,” said Mitchell, who was at home Wednesday night along with a friend. “We could have easily been trapped in there.”

Mitchell says he doesn’t blame his guests.

“They didn’t do anything deliberately, it was just stupidity,” he said. “They are city kids who haven’t been around this stuff.”

Mitchell is not yet sure of his future plans. While rebuilding would be ideal, it will take a lot of money.

Squaw Valley has seen a recent spate of bad luck in the past three months. In January, a fight between David Haff and Thomas Berenbak in the ski resort parking lot resulted in Berenbak being dragged a quarter of a mile underneath Haff’s vehicle. Berenbak suffered head and leg injuries, as well as facial trauma, chest wounds, and possible abdominal injuries. A month later, Andrew Pertzborn, a Ski Corp security guard and parking lot attendant, was killed in a skiing accident in Mammoth. Ironically, one of the friends who accompanied Pertzborn to Mammoth, Dana Hawley of Tahoe City, was one of the first to call in the Mitchell fire.