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Fast-moving wildfire in California destroys 220 homes

Blazes force evacuation of about 1,000

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Posted: June 25, 2007 6:08 p.m.
Updated: July 10, 2007 5:00 a.m.

            MEYERS, Calif. — A growing army of firefighters launched an aggressive attack Monday to corral a forest fire that had destroyed more than 200 buildings in less than a day and forced about 1,000 people to flee neighborhoods near the southern edge of Lake Tahoe.

            State officials declared a state of emergency in the area Monday, the first step in requesting emergency federal assistance to fight the blaze, which rained ash on the pristine lake and darkened the sky over 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 declaration while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was in Europe.

            The fire, believed to be caused by human activity, had charred nearly 2,500 acres — nearly 4 square miles — since it started Sunday afternoon. No injuries were reported. The state Office of Emergency Services said 165 houses and 75 outbuildings had been destroyed.

            The blaze was less than 10 percent contained Monday, said Lt. Kevin House of the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department.

            ‘‘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.

            Flames came within a quarter mile of the 1,500-student South Tahoe High School during the night, and dozens of firefighters surrounded the school. A layer of black ash floating on the lake lapped at boat docks along the shore.

            Wind slowed to about 12 mph during the night, after gusting as high as 35 mph late Sunday, and temperatures dipped into the 30s, aiding firefighters’ efforts to corral the flames in the heavily wooded, parched terrain.

            However, the fire spread northward, enveloping hundreds of acres of unpopulated mountainside, and fire officials warned that afternoon wind could turn the flames toward the east and threaten hundreds more homes.

            The number of firefighters battling the blaze was nearly doubled Monday to more than 700. However, air tankers and helicopters were grounded by dense smoke that cut visibility.

            Fire officials said they have two days to get the fire under control because high wind and low humidity are forecast for 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.

            The National Weather Service issued a dense smoke advisory warning people from South Lake Tahoe to Carson City that the heavy airborne ash would make it difficult to see and breathe.

            House said there were no reports of people missing in the fire area, but ‘‘the truth is we haven’t really been able to get in there and see.’’

            Residents and campers sought shelter at evacuation centers in South Lake Tahoe and at the homes of friends and the area’s many hotels, some of which provided free rooms.

            Matt Laster showed up at one evacuation center Monday looking for clothes. He said he and his wife, two young children and cat fled their rented home Sunday, and 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.

            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 sirens.

            ‘‘I looked back and saw the huge plume of smoke,’’ he said on Monday. ‘‘That’s when I really started to get scared because I know the danger alert that we’ve had in this area.’’

            State and federal fire officials had warned of an active fire 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.

            Elsewhere, at least 30 people had left their homes near the Southern California town of Rosamond, some 80 miles north of Los Angeles, because of a 6,000-acre brush fire, officials said Monday. There had been no reports of damage to houses from the day-old fire, Kern County fire engineer Michael Nicholas said.

            Damp, cooler weather in Alaska helped slow a wildfire in a popular recreation area on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage that had destroyed about 70 homes and cabins and was threatening hundreds more.

            The Kenai blaze, reported on June 19, had spread across nearly 90 square miles and was only about 10 percent contained Monday, said Cheryl Larsen, a state fire information officer in Soldotna. About 500 firefighters were assigned to the blaze.

            Crews hoped to take advantage of Monday’s damper weather because drier weather is forecast later in the week, Larsen said.

            ———

            On the Net:

            National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov/

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