State of emergency declared for Lake Tahoe fire
Associated Press Writer
MEYERS, Calif. (AP) ” California officials declared a state of emergency Monday in the area near Lake Tahoe where firefighters battled a raging forest fire that has destroyed 225 buildings and evacuated hundreds more.
The disaster declaration makes portions of El Dorado County immediately eligible for state aid, and is the first step in requesting emergency federal assistance to fight the blaze, which rained ash on the pristine lake and darkened skies in the high Sierra.
“The circumstances of this wildfire, by reason of their magnitude, are beyond the control of the services, personnel, equipment and facilities of any single county,” said Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who signed the proclamation declaring the emergency while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was in Europe Monday.
The Angora Fire, believed to be caused by human activity, began Sunday and was approaching 2,500 acres ” nearly 4 square miles ” on Monday morning when it was less than 10 percent contained, said Lt. Kevin House of the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department. No injuries were reported.
As day broke, a layer of black, mushy ash lapped along boat docks in the lake raising fears the fire also could have disastrous long-term economic consequences for a community heavily dependent on the lake’s recreational tourism.
The National Weather Service issued a dense smoke advisory warning people from South Lake Tahoe to Carson City about heavy ash making it difficult to see and breathe. Plans to send up airborne tankers and helicopters to drop water and retardant over the heavily wooded, parched terrain had to be scrapped because of visibility problems caused by thick smoke.
Residents were urged to stay inside as fire officials warned the afternoon wind could again turn the fire back toward the east and in the path of more than 500 homes bordering the lake.
“This is far and above the biggest disaster that has happened in this community, I don’t know, probably in forever,” House told reporters in an early morning briefing.
The number of firefighters battling the blaze nearly doubled, to more than 700, on Monday morning, when all that remained of entire neighborhoods in Meyers were the smoldering silhouettes of stone and concrete chimneys.
Caravans of firefighters sliced through smoke-filled mountain passes to reach the remote blaze. Dozens also took up defensive positions around South Lake Tahoe High School as flames came within a quarter mile of the 1,500-student school.
They were aided Monday by winds that had slowed to 12 mph after gusting to about 35 mph the day before. Temperatures also dipped into the 30s. But crews did not approach their goal of containing 25 percent of the fire by sunrise.
Instead, the fire spread northward, enveloping hundreds of acres of unpopulated mountainside.
“We had more favorable conditions overnight. It was a good time to be charging in there and making some progress,” U.S. Forest Service spokesman Rex Norman said. “But that could change if the winds change.”
Fire officials say they have two days to get the fire under control because forecasters warn that high winds and low humidity will return Wednesday.
“We have a window right now where we’re really trying to aggressively attack this fire,” said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in Sacramento.
Many evacuated residents huddled in disbelief as ash rained down from a night sky turned bright orange by the advancing flames. Hotels offered free stays to many evacuees and locals clinged to one bit of good news: Despite the destruction, there were still no reports of injuries.
After leaving his rented home of five years with his wife, two young children and cat, Matt Laster, a legal assistant, showed up at a recreation center Monday morning looking for clothes and a sleeping bag. His family fled the fire Sunday afternoon and Laster said they lost “all the memories,” including his Star Trek collectibles and Grateful Dead albums.
“We are doing OK. I think we are going to get resettled pretty quickly,” Laster said. “We were going to have to move anyway. so we were laughing now, ‘Well we are pretty much packed.'”
In other areas, the fire seemed to randomly skip some homes, but downed power lines, trees and debris made clear that life would not return to normal any time soon, even for those whose homes were spared.
House said there were no reports of missing persons, but “the truth is we haven’t really been able to get in there and see.”
One family was pulled from the area by rescue workers as they raced back to their home, said Norma Santiago, the El Dorado County Supervisor who represents the district hardest hit by the blaze.
The family’s house was destroyed leaving them with only the shorts, T-shirts and hiking gear they’d taken with them.
“It’s unbelievable,” Santiago said.
Steve Yingling, sports editor for the Tahoe Tribune newspaper, lives near where the fire started and had little hope that his home survived. He was leaving for work Sunday afternoon when he heard the sirens.
“I looked back and saw the huge plume of smoke,” he said Monday. “That’s when I really started to get scared because I know the danger alert that we’ve had in this area. Especially this year with the mild winter that we had.”
State and federal fire officials had warned of a potentially active wildfire season in the Sierra Nevada following an unusually dry winter. The annual May 1 snow survey found the Tahoe-area snowpack at just 29 percent of normal levels, the lowest since 1988.
Among the communities evacuated were the Angora Lakes Resort and hundreds of homes in Meyers. The campground at Fallen Leaf Lake also was evacuated.
“I can’t stay on the phone. We just got a notice to evacuate,” Gloria Hildinger of the Angora Lakes Resort said Sunday. “The smoke is getting pretty thick. It’s probably two miles away, and we’re hoping it won’t reach here.”
Fire restrictions have been in effect in Tahoe National Forest since June 11. The No. 1 cause of blazes in the area was abandoned campfires, the U.S. Forest Service said.
In Southern California, a fire burned through some 6,000 acres of brush in the hills near the town of Rosamond, about 80 miles north of Los Angeles, officials said.
At least 30 people voluntarily left their homes in the Oak Creek Canyon area, but there were no reports of damage to houses, Kern County fire engineer Michael Nicholas said.
Hundreds of firefighters battled the blaze amid single-digit humidity levels and winds of up to 30 miles per hour, fire officials said. The blaze, which began Sunday at around 8:30 a.m., was 10 to 15 percent contained, Nicholas said early Monday. Its cause is under investigation.
Associated Press Writers Brendan Riley and Amanda Fehd contributed to this story.
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