Crews gain ground on Tahoe wildfire |

Crews gain ground on Tahoe wildfire

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. ” Relieved residents began trickling back to their homes, after significant gains over the wildfire near Lake Tahoe allowed authorities to lift some evacuation orders.

A second straight day of mild winds brought the blaze to 70 percent containment, prompting officials to reopen several major roads in the area and downgrade some mandatory evacuation orders to voluntary at 9 p.m. Thursday.

Many took advantage of the opportunity to return, said El Dorado Sheriff’s Deputy Phil Chovanec. But for those whose homes bore the brunt of the destruction, the order to stay away remained firm.

“We haven’t been able to have closure,” said Che DeVol, whose home was totally destroyed by the fire. He and his father visited a victim-assistance center set up by various agencies at Tahoe Community College but he had yet to return to a family home of 22 years.

“To stand there and at least rake through our stuff, that’s the hardest part,” he said. “They won’t let us out there.”

A few people were so determined to sift through the ashes that they defied the evacuation orders and returned repeatedly on bicycles earlier Thursday. They were arrested for trespassing, Chovanec said.

“They’re all obviously emotional,” he said. “It’s a very tight community.”

A total of 3,500 people had been evacuated since the fire broke out Sunday. The amount of land burned held steady at 3,100 acres as of Thursday night, and 254 homes had been destroyed, said Rich Hawkins, a Forest Service fire incident commander.

Among many firefighters, there was a sense of rising confidence that they were gaining the upper hand against a blaze that has hop-scotched and erupted erratically. “Demobilization” was the term of the day, and about 500 firefighters were expected to leave Friday.

At a briefing for hundreds of firefighters, Jim Wallman, the command center meteorologist, pointed out a weak ridge of high pressure on a satellite map represented by a dark streak.

“We’re calling it the swath of luck,” he said, explaining that it had kept winds low Thursday. And the wind that did blow had delivered higher humidity, a welcome condition, he added.

Officials, however, said it still was too early to declare victory, with forecasters saying winds could pick up again Friday.

As smoke that had been lurking in the mountains gave way to bluer skies, a measure of normalcy began to return to this resort community. Sunbathers ventured to some beaches, power boats prowled the turquoise waters of the lake and a parasailer floated carefree above.

But it was a tale of two Tahoes. A few miles from the tourist belt, near Meyers, entire neighborhoods lay in ruin, cars slumped on their rims, tires vaporized. Aluminum superheated by the inferno had trickled into the streets and then solidified, leaving shiny rivulets on pavement. Driveways led to empty spaces where houses once stood.

Only public safety officials, utility workers and journalists were permitted into the neighborhood because authorities feared unstable trees and power lines could injure residents. Utility crews worked through the day to restore electricity and other services.

Hawkins said authorities had pinpointed the cause of the blaze, but would not announce it until Friday. He said he believed it was accidental.

Farther south, in Kern County, firefighters were working to contain a fire in a steep canyon that had already burned 12,400 acres, destroying 12 homes and six outbuildings, state fire spokesman Craig Tolmie said. About 60 residents were evacuated because of that fire, which was 60 percent contained on Thursday.

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