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Dream didn't turn to ashes

The Fireside Lodge's owners had no idea how ominous that name would be -- until they found themselves feeding a fire crew.

July 02, 2007|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — For Dave and Christine Latshaw, the little bed and breakfast they opened in May on the outskirts of town was a dream come true -- a means to abandon the stress of Southern California for the calm and majesty of this famous resort community.

The Fireside Lodge is so called for the cozy hearths that adorn each of its nine guest rooms. But that name took on an ominous new meaning last week: Just three weeks after the Fireside opened, the Angora fire destroyed 254 homes near the inn, one of the closest businesses to the burn zone.

On Tuesday, officials ordered the closure of the L-shaped, log cabin-style lodge after a backfire started as a safety maneuver raged out of control.

With their guests already gone and flames exploding in the forest just 50 feet away, Christine Latshaw collapsed into tears: The couple's fantasy investment was about to turn to ashes.

Her husband, a former Thousand Oaks car salesman and financing director, lashed out at fire crews: "Why don't you just put out the fires already out there!"

Then, despite being forced from their own business and facing thousands of dollars in lost revenue, the frustrated couple had a sudden change of heart: They adopted firefighters as their guests.

After temporarily relocating nearby, the Latshaws turned over their vacated inn free of charge to a fire crew from the Central Valley town of Manteca. The couple, who returned to the business each day, offered the use of their kitchen and prepared food and drinks for exhausted firefighters, many of whom they quickly came to consider friends.

"That little inn became a real refuge for a dozen of us," said Manteca firefighter Brian Swift. "They were one amazing couple. In such trying times, I couldn't believe how gracious they were. They made all the difference."

Like many Tahoe residents who have unfurled signs thanking firefighters, Dave Latshaw was awed by the risks crews took to beat back the flames.

"They put their life on the line for me and my property," he said. "What I did was the smallest thing."

For the Latshaws, the Angora fire was a bolt of bad luck they hardly expected.

For years, the couple had pooled their savings while living in Simi Valley, dreaming of one day striking out on their own. Last year, they decided to act on their longtime goal of opening a bed and breakfast they would run as a team.

"We wanted it to be the best in the world," said Christine Latshaw, 43, an interior designer eager to put her artistic touches on her own property.

They scouted properties in Hawaii, Colorado, Florida and Maine before choosing Lake Tahoe because of its year-round tourism. They found a quaint inn for sale along Route 89 heading northwest out of South Lake Tahoe.

The old motel with its vintage Art Deco neon sign was located at the head of a 26-mile backwoods trail perfect for outdoorsy guests. But the couple worried that perhaps they were too close to the woods.

"We asked around about the possibility of fires here, and people told us that the last fire that anybody around here had to worry about was back in the 1880s," said Dave Latshaw, 44. "Lucky for us, we got here just in time for the fire of the century."

They opened at the end of May. Christine Latshaw went to work adding cozy touches to themed rooms with such names as The Mariner, Snowshoe and Field & Stream, making pillows and placing antiques just so.

Dave Latshaw went to work on the outside, building fences, buying the right ingredients for the daily wine-and-cheese mixers, always thinking of how to make his lodge a better place to stay.

Then, a week ago Sunday, the unthinkable for the Tahoe newcomers: Fire struck.

Christine Latshaw spotted smoke about 2:30 p.m. With the help of guests, her husband quickly strung water hoses on the inn's roof and sprayed the lodge down amid the increasing heat and smoke. One by one, skittish guests checked out as the fire got closer -- first two sisters, then a woman who suffered from asthma.

By Monday, the hotel was empty. On Tuesday, firefighters lighted the safety blaze that backfired -- literally. "They came to us and apologized," Dave Latshaw recalled. "They said it just got out of their control."

As they packed a few belongings, a panicky Latshaw told his wife they could always move back to Simi Valley. "I told him, 'No way,' " Christine Latshaw said. "I was staying put. We would rebuild from scratch if we had to."

After his outburst at firefighters, Dave Latshaw quickly realized how bravely the crew was working, with local CHP officers hauling hose to help the frantic effort.

Despite the official closure, the Latshaws unofficially reopened the Fireside Lodge as a firefighter's haven.

"I was on the roof for two days straight. It offered the best vantage point of the oncoming flames," Swift, 29, recalled. "When we couldn't get updates, Dave made sure we kept up with news of the fire on television."

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