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Weary crews gain on Tahoe fire

As conditions calm, 70% containment is reached. But strong winds are still in the forecast.

June 29, 2007|Tami Abdollah | Times Staff Writer

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, CALIF. — Fire Capt. Bernie Guthrie, his fingernails caked black with dirt and his face covered with several days worth of stubble, remained determined Thursday to keep fighting the Angora fire.

He thought back to when he got the call Sunday: Fire in the Tahoe area.

"We didn't know what we were going to get until we got there," said Guthrie, who works with the U.S. Forest Service out of Tulelake in Modoc National Forest in the state's northeast corner.

Perhaps the scariest moment for him, he said, came after wind gusts pushed flames past a northern fire line Tuesday, causing spot fires to break out across the barrier. Two firefighters put fire shelters over themselves for about 45 minutes while the blaze passed by.

The men, who were part of Guthrie's strike team, were helping to protect high-priority areas in front of homes in the heavily populated Gardner Mountain neighborhood and within the city limits of South Lake Tahoe.

Guthrie, 30, is responsible for keeping his four-man crew safe. He said he shouted, "Load your stuff, get in the engine," to his crew, and they drove north toward neighboring Tallac Village. There they learned that the two other firefighters were unhurt.

"It's calmed down a lot," Guthrie said of the conditions.

Fire officials said the Angora fire, which broke out Sunday afternoon and burned about 3,100 acres over several days, was 70% contained as of late Thursday.

Firefighters benefited from a second consecutive day of lighter-than-expected winds, giving officials more confidence that the destructive blaze would be fully contained by early next week.

As of late Thursday, about 300 homes and 45 commercial properties remained threatened, said Barbara Rebiskie, a Forest Service spokeswoman.

Officials said no one has died or sustained life-threatening injuries, but three firefighters were hurt, including one who was hit Wednesday by a large boulder, a hazard caused by loosened soil and burning timber.

The firefighter, who suffered a broken hand and rib, was treated at a local hospital and released.

The fire destroyed 254 homes and 75 other structures and damaged 25 homes, officials said.

About 3,500 people were evacuated from their homes. The cause of the fire, which began in the Seneca Pond area and was believed to have been started accidentally, was expected to be released today, officials said.

More than 2,000 firefighters battled the blaze Thursday, working successfully to tighten lines protecting the Gardner Mountain area and South Lake Tahoe.

Rebiskie said about 100 firefighters were sent home Thursday, the first release since Sunday. About 500 may be released today if conditions remain favorable, officials said.

The plan Thursday for crews like Guthrie's was to create a larger swath of land as a buffer between the fire hotspots and roughly 800 homes still threatened early in the day.

Guthrie's crew watered down smoking hot patches of ashy land or still-burning fires with a fire hose and used hand tools to put out smoldering embers while trying to avoid snags -- hazardous trees.

"Like that's a snag," Guthrie said, pointing to a twisted, charred tree with few scorched leaves.

The burned trees "are weaker -- it's not a good place to be if we get 30 mph winds like they've forecasted."

Officials warned that forecasts for strong winds remained through Saturday.

"You never say never; this fire can still escape," said Rich Hawkins, fire incident commander. "Timber fires are incredibly difficult to put out.... A lot of these fires burn for as long as three months. Luckily, this is stopped for now."

Guthrie said he's hoping to get home in time to see his son Garret turn 2 next Thursday.

"Everybody wants to go home eventually, but this is how we make our money," he said.

"Every day is a new day, and you never know what you're going to get.... But it'd be nice."

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