SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Residents began trickling back to their homes after significant gains over a wildfire near Lake Tahoe allowed authorities to lift some evacuation orders.
A second day of mild winds Thursday enabled firefighters to contain 70 percent of the blaze that destroyed 254 homes, prompting officials to reopen several major roads and downgrade some mandatory evacuation orders to voluntary.
Many residents took advantage of the opportunity to return, said El Dorado Sheriff's Deputy Phil Chovanec. But for those whose homes bore the brunt of the destruction, the order to stay away remained firm.
The home of Che DeVol and his father was destroyed. The two visited a victim-assistance center set up by various agencies at Tahoe Community College but they have not yet been able to return to the family home of 22 years.
"We haven't been able to have closure," he said.
A few people were so determined to sift through the ashes that they defied the evacuation orders and returned repeatedly on bicycles. They were arrested for trespassing, Chovanec said.
"They're all obviously emotional," he said. "It's a very tight community."
A total 3,500 people had been evacuated since the fire broke out Sunday. The amount of land burned held steady at 3,100 acres as of Thursday night, and 254 homes had been destroyed, said Rich Hawkins, a Forest Service fire incident commander.
Among many firefighters, there was a sense that they were gaining the upper hand against a blaze that has hop-scotched and erupted erratically. About 500 firefighters were expected to leave Friday.
At a briefing for hundreds of firefighters, Jim Wallman, the command center meteorologist, pointed out a weak ridge of high pressure on a satellite map represented by a dark streak.
"We're calling it the swath of luck," he said, explaining that it had kept winds low Thursday. And the wind that did blow had delivered higher humidity, a welcome condition, he added.
Officials, however, said it still was too early to declare victory, with forecasters saying winds could pick up again Friday.
The smoke that had been lurking in the mountains gave way to bluer skies and a measure of normalcy began to return to this resort community. Sunbathers ventured to some beaches, power boats prowled the turquoise waters of the lake and a parasailer floated carefree above.
But it was a tale of two Tahoes. A few miles from the tourist belt, near Meyers, entire neighborhoods lay in ruin, cars slumped on their rims, tires vaporized. Aluminum superheated by the inferno had trickled into the streets and then solidified, leaving shiny rivulets on pavement. Driveways led to empty spaces where houses once stood.
Only public safety officials, utility workers and journalists were permitted into the neighborhood because authorities feared unstable trees and power lines could injure residents. Utility crews worked through the day to restore electricity and other services.
Hawkins said authorities had pinpointed the cause of the blaze, but would not announce it until Friday. He said he believed it was accidental.
Farther south, in Kern County, firefighters were working to contain a fire in a steep canyon that had already burned 12,400 acres, destroying 12 homes and six outbuildings, state fire spokesman Craig Tolmie said. About 60 residents were evacuated because of that fire, which was 60 percent contained on Thursday.
Elsewhere, a wildfire near a gateway to Yellowstone National Park grew to roughly 3,000 acres Thursday, fanned by high temperatures and erratic wind. Evacuation orders were in effect for some resorts near West Yellowstone, Mont. Evacuation orders remained in effect for about 40 summer homes, a resort and campground.
Firefighters on the Hawaiian island of Maui were fighting a blaze late Thursday that burned an estimated 1,400 acres and destroyed at least one house. Several homes near Olowalu, where the fire is believed to have started Wednesday, were ordered evacuated. No injuries were reported.