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Jeff Ackerman: Picking up the pieces after Angora Fire

Steve’s otherwise brilliant-blue eyes were lined with red as he stood at his desk inside the newsroom of the Tahoe Daily Tribune last week. One of his sons ” probably one of the boys in many of the Little League team photos decorating Steve’s wall ” stood nearby.

I’d gone back to my old newspaper to see if I could help with the coverage of what the media had nicknamed the Angora Fire. To Steve and his family the fire had no name, just a face that had destroyed a lifetime of belongings. Steve and another Tahoe Daily Tribune employee were among the more than 200 families that lost their homes in a fire that moved so quickly on a Sunday afternoon that most had just enough time to flee with the clothes on their backs. It was a prefect storm that had been brewing for months, perhaps years. All it needed was a spark and a nice breeze off the lake.

By the time I arrived Thursday morning, the lake was its picture-perfect self, not a puff of smoke in the sky. It was the kind of day tourism honchos brag about in brochures, beckoning “flatlanders” to the mountains for some fresh air and recreation.



Driving past the casinos at Stateline, I saw hotel guests jogging and early morning gamblers moving between Bill’s and Harvey’s, with breakfast Bloody Marys in one hand and probably slot cards in the other.

Not even a fire big enough to make MSNBC and CNN could deter a gambler from his mission.




Except for the “THANK YOU FIREFIGHTERS” signs on the billboards where you’d usually see “RAIN. TRIBUTE TO THE BEATLES,” you’d never know 1,000 or so of the town’s people woke up homeless that morning.

I followed the Angora Fire more closely than most. I lived in the neighborhood where many of the homes were destroyed. Once you spend some serious time in South Lake Tahoe, you get a sense of community. It’s a close-knit town, where tourists come and go, but community stays through the “off season.” After a year you get tired of the tourists, but you tolerate them because they pay the bills. Lift tickets aren’t cheap, and the mid-week skiing makes it all worth the effort. It’s a community of outdoor people who choose to tolerate the high prices and other costs associated with living in a resort area so they can enjoy the amenities Mother Nature has to offer.

The Angora Fire reminded them of another price you pay for living in the wooded mountains.

At mid-morning, a fellow wandered into the Tahoe Daily Tribune newsroom looking to speak with a reporter. There wasn’t one available so they handed him off to the next best thing … me. I’d brought a pack of reporter notebooks with me, hoping they’d throw me a bone, so I jumped at the chance. The fellow’s name was David Stuart, and he’d come to South Shore to offer his help and a little advice. A little more than three years ago, Stuart saw his Lake Arrowhead community practically destroyed by a fire. It took an early snow storm to finally halt that one, and by then it had already burned 91,000 acres of the San Bernadino Mountains, destroyed more than 900 homes and killed four people.

“Everybody waits for the cavalry to arrive,” Stuart told me. “The people on the fire line right now ” the firefighters, police and others ” are the pros. They are here to get the situation under control. Once they leave, then comes the Red Cross, Small Business Association, FEMA (if you are lucky) and others. But none of them are here for the long haul. The community will ultimately have to be its own cavalry.”

In other words, once the national news reporters have moved on to the next Paris Hilton spotting and the firefighters have been dispatched to yet another fire in another part of the bone-dry state, the residents of South Lake Tahoe will be left to care for their own. And that’s the test of a real community.

“Everyone in South Lake Tahoe has been impacted by this fire,” said Stuart. “Those who lost their homes, certainly, but also the businesses, employees and others. There are several emotional stages a community goes through after a disaster like this. We had more than 14,000 people who had professional counseling on one level or another (in the Lake Arrowhead area), especially the children.”

He estimates that it could take years before South Lake Tahoe really recovers from the Angora Fire. “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said.

I don’t know that much about Lake Arrowhead. But I do know the community of South Lake Tahoe, and it is tough and determined. It’s a community that sits quietly in the shadows of the fun and glitz. It’s the waiters and the waitresses, the pit bosses and the dealers, lift operators and mountain groomers, the bellhops and parking attendants. Tough people determined to live and protect one of God’s greatest creations. And if any community can bounce back, it’s this one.

For those of us who also live in the woods and dry-brush foothills, we need to pay attention to our brothers and sisters struggling in South Lake Tahoe today. We, too, are just a spark and an afternoon breeze away from a similar fate. So please refrain from the fireworks this year and take some time to clear your property and help your neighbor do the same. It’s no longer a matter of “if,” but “when.”

ooo

Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at 477-4299, jeffa@theunion.com, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.


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