Likelihood of more strong wind concerns crews battling blaze near Lake Tahoe

Published 5:03 pm Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Firefighters worried Wednesday about a threatened resurgence of the stiff wind that has stoked the turbulent wildfire near Lake Tahoe, where a flare-up a day earlier forced thousands more residents to flee.

Fire officials believed they had a handle on the eastern edge of the blaze, which has destroyed nearly 200 homes at the south end of the scenic alpine lake. But a large gust Tuesday afternoon pushed firefighters off the line they had been holding for more than a day.

The surge briefly trapped two firefighters and forced the evacuation of a 300-home subdivision.

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With wind forecast to reach 30 mph again Wednesday, officials warned that more homes, including some in the most affluent waterfront neighborhoods, could be threatened. Inmate crews were deployed to clear brush along state Route 89 in case flames jumped the fire line again.

“Tomorrow’s the test,” U.S. Forest Service spokesman Tom Efird said late Tuesday. “Hopefully there will be no more tests.”

At one point Tuesday, authorities said the danger to homes had diminished as the wind abated, but by Tuesday evening the blaze that started Sunday had charred more than 3,000 acres — about 4.7 square miles — and was only 44 percent contained, fire officials said.

Containment is not expected before next Tuesday, said Rich Hawkins, a Forest Service fire commander.

Tuesday’s flare-up occurred in an area where firefighters had set a backfire to keep the main blaze from reaching more houses. The gust blew embers across the fire line and started new spot fires, Hawkins said.

The blaze moved so quickly that two firefighters were forced to deploy their emergency shelters firefighters. They walked away uninjured, Hawkins said.

About 2,000 people evacuated, according to South Lake Tahoe Police Lt. Martin Hale.

Investigators have located the fire’s point of origin, near the popular Seneca Pond recreation area, and are close to identifying its cause, Forest Service spokeswoman Beth Brady said. Authorities have said they believe it was caused by human activity, but there was no indication it was intentional.

The forest is so dry that a discarded cigarette butt or match could easily have ignited the fire, Brady said. The area was also dotted with the remnants of illegal campfires, she said.

Many homeowners got their first look at the wildfire’s destruction Tuesday, finding some houses reduced to charred ruins and others largely unscathed, except for the odor of smoke and a blanket of ash.

Concerned about looting, dozens of sheriff’s deputies and California Highway Patrol officers patrolled the burned neighborhoods, and only people who lived in the area were allowed in.

“I didn’t save hardly anything in the house,” said retired firefighter John Hartzell, who lost his home of 20 years. Along with his wife, adult son and daughter, he sorted through the rubble in search of any mementos.

“I got out with the clothes on my back, my fire coat and my helmet,” he said.

Elsewhere, arson has been blamed for a wildfire in western South Dakota that has blacked about 3.5 square miles in Custer State Park, said Joe Lowe, state wildland fire coordinator. The blaze was about two-thirds contained late Tuesday.

Custer State Park remained open but a campground and a lodge had been evacuated, disrupting the vacation plans of hundreds of visitors.