Amid throes of Caldor Fire, North Lake firefighters remain vigilant
While nearly 300 square miles of South Lake Tahoe and El Dorado County burned, North Lake Tahoe’s Truckee Fire Protection District responded to two small fires on either end of Donner Lake Monday evening.
Ken Flax was walking his dogs near Donner Lake’s west shore when he heard a loud explosion. Attributing the noise to possible fireworks, even on a Red Flag Warning day, Flax let the sound fade from his memory until he received a call from his brother recreating at on a dog beach on the lake’s east side: “Is the fire where you are?”
Flax said he did not see anything while packing up his car, but after turning a corner on his way home, saw smoke coming from a house on the uphill side of Donner Pass Road toward I-80. Flax said flames were lapping at the home’s entrance, just 20 feet up from Donner Lake, and the house was consumed before first responders arrived.
“When I arrived you could see a window near the deck and there was no fire in it. Within two minutes fire went through the entire house, and it went up a pine tree in the backyard,” Flax said.
As a volunteer firefighter himself, Flax said he stayed on scene documenting the incident until authorities asked him to leave after the second engine arrived.
The Olympic Valley Fire Department, U.S. Forest Service and Truckee Fire Protection District all responded to the scene. According to the fire protection district’s public information officer, Laura Brown, responders employed a helicopter to drop water and an air tanker to drop retardant.
“There was a helicopter dropping buckets and a ‘lat drop,’” Brown said, adding that responding units called for a full vegetation response to the incident given the nearby tree.
Brown said the district responded to the call at 5:15 p.m. Fifteen minutes later the same agency dispatched units to Coachland RV Park to control a small fire encroaching on wildland there.
“So many resources are here during red flag days,” Brown said. “We definitely want to nail those things as quickly as possible. It can only take a second.”
HIGHER RISK, MORE RESOURCES
Flax said before the house fire on Donner Pass Road, he had never seen air resources be used to fight a house fire.
“As a volunteer firefighter for a long time, I had never seen air drops used on a structure fire that didn’t involve wildland,” Flax said.
Brown said the plus side of Red Flag Warning days are the “extra” resources made available to existing first responding units.
“One of the reasons we were able to (get) them so quickly was because it’s a Red Flag Warning day,” Brown said. “We have more staff and resources available, so any ignition (can be addressed right away).
Brown said fires around North Lake Tahoe will always be attended to, especially during wildfire season.
“No matter what, around here we have mutual aid,” Brown said. “Whenever a big incident happens, neighboring agencies respond. That’s on any given daily basis.”
Brown said some critical thinkers may wonder whether the firefighting resources may be particularly strained in the area given the Caldor Fire’s proximity, but that is not the case in North Lake.
“When large wildfires happen throughout California, we send resources to these fires, but these fires happen every season,” Brown said, adding that the crisis’ predictability allows for planning.
Brown said the district allots a certain number of personnel to attend to out-of-area fires, but ensures the number sent away does not put a strain on the remaining staff.
“Our number one priority is Truckee, because if we send our (first responders away), they have to have somewhere to return to,” Brown said. “We back fill and protect our community here.”
Brown said authorities have yet to confirm the cause of the house fire. An investigation that will take time given that the structure eventually collapsed.
“There was no sign of propane explosion that we can see,” Brown said. “The structure was fully involved when we got there, and it ended up having the roof collapse, so everything has to be peeled back and looked at.”
Brown said the fire marshal will interview the homeowners and neighbors to help determine how the fire began.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at email@example.com
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The Caldor Fire burned hottest in decimated communities, and the landscape has dramatically changed on the main highway leading to South Lake Tahoe