Firefighters racing the weather for control of a turbulent wildfire near this popular resort got a bit of a break Wednesday as high winds forecast to arrive by early afternoon held off, giving crews time to shore up their defenses.
Hundreds of firefighters tried to tame the three-day-old blaze on two fronts - near the small town of Meyers, about seven miles from Lake Tahoe, and on the edge of several densely populated subdivisions near the lake itself, where another flank jumped a containment line a day earlier.
While forecasters were still expecting the wind to pick up later in the day, the extra few hours of calm allowed firefighters to fortify their lines, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman said.
"The worst-case scenario is the fire would break out in multiple locations," said Rich Hawkins, a Forest Service fire commander. "The biggest problem is just that there are so many homes in a combustible environment."
The governors of California and Nevada, which share the lake, toured neighborhoods where the wildfire had already destroyed more than 200 homes and other buildings.
California's insurance commissioner, citing figures from the El Dorado County sheriff's department, pegged the total property damage at $150 million.
Hundreds of homes within view of the lake remained under mandatory evacuation orders, while residents of the already damaged areas toured by Gibbons and Schwarzenegger were still being asked to stay away as part of a voluntary evacuation.
But many returned - at least long enough to stuff more belongings into cars and trucks before leaving again. Others came back and camped out, readying garden hoses and even buckets to douse embers expected to land nearby if winds kicked up as expected.
In all, about 3,500 people have been evacuated, according to statistics relayed to the visiting governors.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons walked amid the rubble of several incinerated homes in the Tahoe Mountain neighborhood, just outside South Lake Tahoe.
Schwarzenegger, who was in Europe when the fire broke out, was
making his first visit to the area. The ex-bodybuilder picked a dumbbell from the debris and hoisted it, marveling that it was one of the few objects to survive. "Amazing," he told an aide.
Little else survived the inferno. Metal mattress coils, a bicycle, tools, half-melted televisions, concrete foundations and chimneys were about all that was left of the houses, while those next door stood virtually untouched.
"It could have been much worse, if we hadn't had such well-trained firefighters," said Schwarzenegger.
The blaze has charred more than 3,000 acres - about 4.7 square miles - and was 44 percent contained on Wednesday. Fire officials were still predicting the fire would be contained by next Tuesday. Whether that date changes "depends on how well things hold together today and tomorrow," Efird said.
With stiffer gusts still in the forecast, officials acknowledged that more homes, including some in the most affluent waterfront neighborhoods, could be threatened. Several officials said the wind could also present a danger to firefighters themselves.
"It really is hard to predict what these winds are going to do," said Kelly Martin, a fire behavior analyst who addressed hundreds of firefighters from across the state at a pre-dawn briefing Wednesday.
Officials thought they had a handle on the blaze Tuesday, but a surprisingly big gust of in the afternoon was all it took to push firefighters off the line they had held for more than a day outside a 300-home subdivision.
It was in an area where firefighters had set a fire the night before as part of their efforts to keep the main blaze from reaching more houses and Lake Tahoe itself. The gust blew embers from the burn area over the fireline and started new spot fires, Hawkins said.
The blaze descended so quickly that two firefighters were forced to deploy the emergency shelters they carry to protect themselves as a last resort.
Without the shelters, the men would have died, Hawkins said. The men, missing for nearly an hour, managed to walk away uninjured.
Fire investigators on Wednesday were interviewing around 10 witnesses believed to be among the first to spot the blaze as it whipped up from a popular jogging and hiking path about seven miles
southwest of the lake.
Authorities have said they believe the fire was caused by human activity, but there was no indication it was set intentionally.
Forest Service spokeswoman Beth Brady, a member of the four-person group leading the investigation, said they were confident they'd isolated the spot where the first spark landed. But after the fire flared again Tuesday afternoon, they delayed an expected announcement about the cause and decided to double-check their findings against eyewitness accounts.
"It's important that we follow up on every lead and verify our findings," Brady said, noting that lab analysis of some of the soil samples could also delay the release of findings for at least another day.
Fire officials were still predicting the fire would be contained by next Tuesday. Whether that date changes "depends on how well things hold together today and tomorrow," Efird said.
Farther south, more than 1,400 firefighters were working a blaze in Kern County, about 80 miles north of Los Angeles.
The 10,700-acre fire was 50 percent contained Wednesday and moving slowly despite 15-25 mph winds and only 12 percent humidity.
Two buildings had been damaged by the flames, but no homes were
threatened on Wednesday, said Mike Mohler, a state fire spokesman.
"We're just trying to work with the weather right now," he said "It slopped over the line a little bit last night...but right now, things are looking good."
Associated Press Writers Joe Mullin, Aaron C. Davis, Amanda Fehd
and Robert Jablon contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)