MEYERS, Calif. – A raging wildfire near Lake Tahoe on Monday forced hundreds of residents to flee towering flames that destroyed more than 200 buildings, turned the sky orange and fouled the lake’s famously clear waters with falling ash.
Many hotels offered free rooms as families clung to one bit of good news: Despite the destruction, there were no reports of injuries.
“All the memories are gone,” said Matt Laster, a legal assistant forced to flee his rented home of five years with his wife, two young children and cat. He showed up at a recreation center looking for clothes and a sleeping bag.
The blaze had scorched almost 2,500 acres – nearly 4 square miles – but by early Monday evening fire officials said the blaze was about 40 percent contained. Full containment was expected by Sunday, the U.S. Forest Service said.
About 1,000 people had evacuated from the path of the flames, and authorities feared up to 500 other houses could be threatened in this resort area along the California-Nevada state line.
More than 700 firefighters were on hand, but plans to send up airborne tankers and helicopters to drop water and retardant over the heavily wooded, parched terrain were scrapped because of low visibility from the thick smoke.
Firefighters hoped to bring the blaze under control ahead of high winds and low humidity forecast for the middle of the week. Dozens took up defensive positions around South Lake Tahoe High School as flames came within a quarter mile of the 1,500-student school.
“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.
Along the lake’s southern shore, a layer of black, mushy ash lapped along boat docks, raising fears the fire also could have disastrous long-term economic consequences for a community heavily dependent on the lake’s recreational tourism.
California officials declared a state of emergency, meaning the state would cover all firefighting costs. The National Weather Service issued a dense smoke advisory warning people from South Lake Tahoe to Carson City, Nev., that heavy ash was making it difficult to see and breathe.
The fire began Sunday afternoon on a ridge separating the resort community of South Lake Tahoe from Fallen Leaf Lake, a recreation area where a U.S. Forest Service campground was evacuated.
Firefighters were aided Monday by winds that had slowed to 12 mph after gusting to about 35 mph the day before. Forecasters warned that if high winds and low humidity returned, the fire could threaten more than 500 homes bordering the lake.
By early afternoon Monday, 173 homes had been lost to flames and many others were damaged, along with dozens of outbuildings, authorities said. All that remained of entire neighborhoods in Meyers were the smoldering silhouettes of stone and concrete chimneys.
The burned neighborhoods were a hodgepodge of million-dollar vacation homes, cabins and modest houses strung along the east side of the ridge. At least three members of the local fire department were believed to have lost their homes.