High Winds Feared as Firefighters Do Battle at Lake Tahoe

LAKE TAHOE, California, June 27, 2007 (ENS) - Firefighters are watching the wind very closely as they struggle to subdue the worst fire in Lake Tahoe history. The Angora Fire has torched 3,100 acres of large trees in South Lake Tahoe, but fire managers say "good progress" was made today, and at this hour the fire is considered to be about 55 percent contained.

Fire managers say strong winds forecast for today did not occur, but high winds that could spread the flames are still being forcast for tommorow, potentially gusting to 30 miles per hour and making work difficult for the 2,174 firefighters on the ground.

The fire broke out about 2pm on Sunday, and quickly gathered speed, driven by high winds. Authorities say it was intentionally set, and an investigation is underway.

On Tuesday, the fire jumped the fire line near a densely populated area, forcing a new round of evacuations.

Fire looms over Lake Tahoe. June 26, 2007 (Photo courtesy Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit)
More than 3,500 people have been evacuated and over 260 homes burned to the ground, and another 20 homes have been damaged, along with about 75 other structures. No casualties or major injuries have been reported.

California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner said today after touring the burned area, "We estimate the losses in excess of 150 million dollars now."

While mandatory evacuation notices are still in force for some areas, residents of other areas are being allowed back into their homes, although they are asked to remain ready to evacuate again if authorities deem it necessary.

Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada mountains along the border between California and Nevada is known for the clarity of its water and the scenic mountains on all sides.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nevada Governor Jim Gibbons visited the stricken resort town on their common border today and held a news conference with other officials from both states.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger addresses reporters and members of the public today in Lake Tahoe. To his left is U.S. Forest Service Forest Fire Chief for the Lake Tahoe Basin Kit Bailey, to his right is Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
Governor Schwarzenegger thanked all the firefighters who he called "the most extraordinary heroes."

"I have done action movies where I play the hero, but those are the true action heroes," said the actor turned governor.

"I just came back from Europe, and people talk about the greatest firefighters and the best trained, and the toughest firefighters in the world. Thatís what they call the California firefighters," Schwarzenegger said.

Drought has been predicted across the western states, prompting Schwarzenegger to issue an Executive Order in May to mobilize additional firefighting personnel and firefighting equipment. "It has paid off now in this particular fire," he said.

On Tuesday officials created the Local Assistance Center to help people who have been displaced by the fire, offering one-stop assistance from various state agencies for quick assistance to the victims.

Calling Lake Tahoe "one of the most beautiful places" in the world," the governor said, "Iíve already directed the California Resources and the California Environmental Protection Agencies to draft an aggressive restoration plan as quickly as possible to keep Tahoe restored and to bring it back to its pre-fire conditions."

Federal, state, regional and local agencies will participate in the environmental restoration effort.

Governor Gibbons said, "Nevada and California are not separated by a state line, they are joined by a state line. This lake is important not just to Nevada and California; itís a national treasure."

The effort that Iím very proud of is the fact that our first responders, both California and Nevada, who responded quickly, made it possible so that we didnít have any loss of life in this terrible fire," the Nevada governor said.

The Angora Fire looking west from Meyers, California. June 25, 2007 (Photo courtesy Mike Guarino)
At the news conference today, local resident Jordan Morgenstern, speaking for many of the people who have lost their homes, said they were not able to provide defensible space around their homes because regional authorities prevented them from cutting down trees.

"We have all of the tinder right underneath the trees, so the fire jumped from tree to tree to house to tree," Morgenstern said.

He asked the governors, "Do you think that there should be a Congressional investigation of how the Regional Planning Authority for preventing people from actually cutting down trees and creating more defensible space?"

"They are right now investigating; they think that it was caused by a human being, this fire," Governor Schwarzenegger said. "Finding out what really happened, how did it spread so quickly, and all of this stuff has to be investigated and looked at, and then we will know much more, so we can fight the fires."

U.S. Forest Service Forest Fire Chief for the Lake Tahoe Basin Kit Bailey said fuels treatment done earlier this year made it easier for the people fighting the Angora Fire to do their difficult work.

"We just finished about a 300 acre piece just at the base of Tahoe Mountain, this May, and that was instrumental in us providing opportunities for the firefighters to get in, safely move about, protect structures, and take opportunities where they could for direct suppression," Bailey said.

Fallen Leaf Lake and Lake Tahoe South Shore as seen from the Angora Hills before the fire. Summer 2003. (Photo courtesy Bob Gries)
"Without those fuel treatments in place, we would have seen a much different picture here," Bailey said. "Itís devastating to see what weíve been through now, but I think we probably would have seen at least double the losses that we had here in the last three days, and Iím just thankful we were able to get in there and do this stuff."

Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi said, "Yes, youíve got to have the defensible space. Itís the law in California, and the local agencies here and other places do not stand in your way to do that fire safe space around your house. Secondly, make your home fire safe, get rid of the wood shake roof, get the leaves out of the eaves, get the pine needles off of the roof, make your home safe."

California Insurance Commissioner Poizner warned homeowners, "There is a serious problem with underinsurance in the state of California."

"Every homeowner in the state of California should do two things immediately, today," Poizner said. "First is to review their homeownerís insurance policy with their agent and broker, today. It canít wait."

"If your homeownerís insurance policy is out of date," he said, "and you have a crisis, then you wonít get reimbursed the full value."

Second, Poizner said, is to have an inventory done in advance. "Use a digital camera or a video recorder, record all of your personal assets. If you have that inventory in place, then the chances of getting fully reimbursed quickly and completely go way, way up."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.