MEYERS, Calif. – A fresh plume of black smoke billowed over Lake Tahoe Tuesday and a new round of evacuations began as firefighters suffered a setback in their efforts to tame a raging wildfire that had already destroyed some 200 homes near the scenic alpine lake.
Firefighters were working to protect the Tallac Village development outside South Lake Tahoe when the blaze jumped their fireline, prompting the evacuation of the entire subdivision. It was unclear how many homes were subject to the order.
"It's a fairly populated area," said Tim Evans, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. "That certainly is not good news for our firefighting efforts here."
Authorities said the danger to homes had diminished overnight as dying winds gave firefighters a badly needed leg up on the inferno. But it was still burning throughout the day along rugged, uninhabited slopes and authorities cautioned that strong winds forecast to arrive in the area could fan the flames. A gusty breeze began to kick up Tuesday afternoon.
"We were concerned about the wind coming up in this area," Evans said. "It's windy up here. It's very dry here. When you have wind and dry fuel you get columns like what we see now."
The flare-up is about three miles from where the fire started Sunday near the south end of Lake Tahoe. By Tuesday afternoon, the blaze had consumed more than 2,700 acres and was about 40 percent contained, fire officials said. Only one minor injury has been reported.
Investigators have isolated the fire's point of origin, near the popular Seneca Pond recreation area, and they were close to identifying its cause, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Beth Brady said.
"We have clues to the cause that make us pretty confident that we know what happened," she said.
Authorities have said they believe the fire was caused by human activity, but there was no indication it was set intentionally.
"Human cause doesn't necessarily mean arson," Brady said.
At the source, investigators covered in soot cordoned off an area with yellow police tape and crouched at the base of a rock collecting dirt samples. The forest here was so dry, Brady said, that a discarded cigarette butt or match easily could have ignited the fire. The area also was dotted with the remnants of illegal campfires, she said.
Many homeowners got their first look Tuesday at the destruction wrought by the still-raging wildfire, with some discovering scenes of total devastation and others counting their blessings over smoke-filled homes blanketed with ash.
In the most heavily damaged neighborhoods, firefighters were still mopping up smoldering debris around houses where pockets of live flame lingered. Smoke hung thick over charred piles of rubble that were once homes to nurses, firefighters, policemen and teachers.
"I didn't save hardly anything in the house," said retired firefighter John Hartzell, whose home of 20 years was incinerated by the wildfire. Along with his wife, adult son and a daughter, he sorted through the charred rubble in search of any mementos that might have survived.
"I got out with the clothes on my back, my fire coat and my helmet," he said.
Elsewhere, an opulent contemporary log home stood nearly untouched, even though all the sod in the yard had burned.
"It picks and chooses," said Lynn Cisl, whose home along the edge of the most damaged area also survived. "It's sort of like a disease. It's devastating."
Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, who toured the area Monday, said fire officials estimated the cost of fighting the blaze at $35 million to $50 million, and the overall damage at more than $100 million. But with outdoor recreation dominating the region's economy and Lake Tahoe's famed clarity sure to be diminished by fallen ash and embers, the overall economic impact was expected to be much greater, authorities said.
Concerned about looting, dozens of sheriff's deputies and California Highway Patrol officers roamed the burned neighborhoods of Meyers, a few miles south of the lake, ensuring that only those who lived in the area were allowed in.
Cars lined up at an elaborate checkpoint where their windows were marked with white shoe polish to designate the street number of the home where it was headed.
"It was eerie and awkward. You could see the expressions on everyone's face," said Lindsey Douglass, 22, after she made her way through the line of more than 30 waiting cars.
Beyond the checkpoint, neatly manicured driveways led to metal garage doors still standing like gates to nowhere amid the skeletons of burned-out homes. Hartzell's sister-in-law, Ruth Orozco, a nurse, also lost her home but was able to escape with her two dogs and one cat.
"I can't believe it's all gone," she said, breaking into tears.
Of about a dozen homes on his street, Neal Cohn's was one of just two that was spared from the flames. He attributed its survival to the fact that he regularly removed fallen pine needles from his property, a practice that is banned and subject to fines by the regional planning agency, which says their removal exposes bare soil and causes erosion, a prime culprit in Lake Tahoe's declining clarity.
"You can see the fire line behind my house where the pine needles stopped," he said, "and the neighbors didn't do it."
Others who lost their homes or sustained serious damage were told that concerns about downed power lines and other hazards would delay their return until later this week.
Residents who were spared a total loss said they felt fortunate under the circumstances.
"We still have a home," said Kim Garon, 42, who evacuated when she saw the blaze approaching her house Sunday and came back to find it filled with the thick smell of smoke but having escaped the fire's random hopscotch. "We're doing great."