Fire crews continue to investigate the cause and origin of the South Lake Tahoe fire that destroyed two homes on Tuesday night.
“We’re looking at the fire investigation — cause and origin. We’re doing a systematic investigation of the whole property looking for burn patterns,” Lake Valley Fire Protection District Fire Chief Gareth Harris said as his crew sifted through the burned debris around 10 a.m. on Wednesday.
One person was taken to Barton Memorial Hospital with burns and nearby homes were evacuated after police and fire personnel responded to the fire around 5:55 p.m.
The house where the fire originated, 3120 Pioneer Trail, belonged to local watercolor artist E. Peter Darvas, who was identified as the burn victim. According to Harris, Darvas’ condition was stable as of Wednesday morning. He was taken to the hospital after trying to put out the fire with a garden hose.
South Lake Tahoe Fire Chief Brian Uhler credited a quick response from firefighters for preventing the fire from spreading to additional homes and the surrounding forest.
He described both houses as “total losses” Tuesday evening. The fire was mostly extinguished by about 7 p.m., Uhler said.
Firefighters from South Lake Tahoe Fire Department, Lake Valley Fire Protection District, Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District and Fallen Leaf Fire Department responded to the blaze, Uhler said.
Eyewitness Clayton Cole, whose parents own the house across the street from the structure where the fire started, said the house went up in flames within about three minutes. It spread from the house to a tall tree across the street and the adjacent building.
“When we first saw it, it was just brown smoke, and the fire alarm was going off and people were running around. Then the flames broke through the roof, and there were 30-foot flames all over the front of the house,” Cole said.
Cole and his girlfriend both said they saw someone run from the house when the fire started and leave the property quickly in a van.
Chad Davis, who lives in the house directly behind the second burned structure, said his roommate also saw someone leave the house and get in a van.
Davis said he spent the night watching the flames and hoping they wouldn’t spread to his house.
“I was afraid to even take a shower. I would have lost everything. This is crazy. It sure was a rough night,” Davis said.
Davis said he’s seen smoke emanating from 3120 Pioneer Trail before and that Darvas had a wood stove in his home.
The internationally renowned impressionist painter had recently won an appeal before the South Lake Tahoe City Council in January.
The city had confiscated debris found in his yard, and the two parties grappled with abatement issues.
The council approved the appeal with a 3-1 vote on the grounds that Darvas didn’t receive proper notification of the abatement proceedings. Mayor Claire Fortier, the only dissenting voter, said she doesn’t buy it.
“I felt that Mr. Darvas was in violation of our city code. He had a backyard full of stuff, which he failed to remove,” Fortier said Wednesday morning.
“It was a nuisance to his neighbors. It was also a health hazard and a safety hazard,” she said.
Since January, Darvas has filed a claim against the city for the cost of his confiscated property. Fortier said she didn’t know the amount and wasn’t sure Darvas had ever specified it.
A police officer also suffered minor burns during the incident but did not need medical treatment, according to scanner traffic.
Axie Navis is a reporter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, The Union’s sister paper. Reporter Adam Jensen and Editor Trisha Leonard contributed to this report.