A community college became the epicenter for a town's pain Monday as residents anxiously scanned computer printouts listing the homes destroyed in a raging forest fire 10 miles away.
Nearly everyone who filed into the student center left crying. There were just too many homes on the list.
"It was like the mouth of hell - black smoke billowing on either side and this red devil in the middle," Tara Brennan, 57, said after seeing "total" loss by the street number of her home of 31 years, 1424 Olympia Cir. "I knew it had my house, I knew it."
Located in a popular resort area along the California-Nevada border that has seen plenty of growth in the last decade but little rain this year, the rapidly spreading Angora Fire destroyed more than 225 homes and buildings in less than a day and clouded Lake Tahoe's famously clear water.
The blaze had scorched almost 2,500 acres - nearly 4 square miles - but by early Monday evening fire officials said the blaze was about 40 percent contained. The U.S. Forest Service expects full containment of the blaze by Sunday, authorities said.
"This is far and above the biggest disaster that has happened in this community, I don't know, probably in forever," said Lt. Kevin House of the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department.
House said there were no reports of missing persons, but "the truth is we haven't really been able to get in there and see." The fire's cause was under investigation, but believed to have been caused by human activity.
The fire began Sunday afternoon on a ridge separating the resort community of South Lake Tahoe from Fallen Leaf Lake, a recreation
area where a U.S. Forest Service campground was evacuated. Neighborhoods of million-dollar vacation homes, cabins and modest
houses are strung along the east side of the ridge.
By early afternoon Monday, it had claimed 173 homes and damaged many others, along with dozens of outbuildings, authorities said. Residents of Meyers, a small town that received the brunt of the damage, recalled watching in horror, then disbelief as the fire bore down on residential streets.
"I looked up and the sky was as dark as midnight, and the other side of the street was on fire," said Keith Cooney, who had raced home ahead of the advancing flames to gather his black Labrador and belongings when a transformer in his front yard exploded from the heat.
At least three members of the local fire department were believed to have lost their homes. All that remained of entire neighborhoods in Meyers were the smoldering silhouettes of stone and concrete chimneys.
A layer of black, mushy ash lapped along boat docks in the lake, raising fears the fire also could have disastrous long-term economic consequences for a community heavily dependent on the lake's recreational tourism.
State officials declared a state of emergency, meaning California would cover all costs associated with fighting the fire, which was under investigation but believed to be caused by human activity.
"This is a very difficult day for people in Tahoe and for those of us who know and love that place," said Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who signed the emergency declaration because Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was traveling in Europe. The governor was receiving regular briefings by phone but had no plans to return early, his office said.
State and federal fire officials had warned of a potentially active wildfire season in the Sierra Nevada following an unusually dry winter. The annual May 1 snow survey found the Tahoe-area snowpack at just 29 percent of normal levels, the lowest since 1988.
Fire restrictions have been in effect in the Tahoe National Forest since June 11. The No. 1 cause of blazes in the area is abandoned campfires, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Many people said they had spent long hours getting rid of fire hazards around their homes, clearing away brush and pine needles. Forestry crews had thinned trees in some of the heavily timbered neighborhoods last summer. But that wasn't enough to stop the flames.
"I don't know if anything would have helped," Jean Yingling said Monday as she described the fire that spread so rapidly that she and others in the area had only a few minutes to grab some possessions and flee.
"The fire was roaring like a jet engine. I heard some explosions and saw flames 200 feet high," echoed Kris Diehl, a local musician and South Lake Tahoe resident who saw his house destroyed, adding, "When that happens, you just can't believe how fast everything happens. It's a life or death situation."
More than 700 firefighters were on hand, but plans to send up airborne tankers and helicopters to drop water and retardant over the heavily wooded, parched terrain were delayed because of low visibility from the thick smoke. A pair of helicopters loaded with water finally reached the scene in the middle of the afternoon.
"We have a window right now where we're really trying to aggressively attack this fire," said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in Sacramento.
Firefighters were aided Monday by winds that had slowed to 12 mph after gusting to between 35 and 50 mph the day before. Forecasters warned that if high winds and low humidity returned, the fire could threaten more than 500 homes bordering the lake.
"It was a good time to be charging in there and making some progress," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Rex Norman said. "But that could change if the winds change."
The most destructive wildfires in California history began in late October 2003 and burned for two weeks, killing 22 people, including one firefighter, and scorching more than 750,000 acres in a wide arc from Ventura County east to the San Bernardino Mountains and throughout San Diego County. They destroyed 3,640 homes.
The most expensive single fire in state history was the 1991 Oakland Hills blaze, which caused $1.7 billion in damage. That fire killed 25 people and destroyed 3,175 homes and apartments.
Anxious residents barred from returning to the fire-damaged area
jammed the lobby of Lake Tahoe Community College in South Lake
Tahoe, hoping to get word from authorities on whether their homes
were still standing.
Missy Springer and her husband, Al, were in San Francisco celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary when they got a call from a relative that their South Lake Tahoe home was in trouble. Indeed, it had been gutted by the fire.
"I'm making lists. Trying to figure out what to do next. Everyone is OK, but my two cats are gone. The baby pictures are gone. It's starting over trying to figure out what to do next," Missy Springer said.
After escaping the tunnel of fire in Meyers, Cooney found himself Monday at the Lake Tahoe Community Center, which had been set up as an emergency shelter, wondering where to run to next.
"I want to get drunk. I'm homeless," he said.
"It's the ugliness now that's going to set in," added Brennan, shaking her head. "I moved here for the beauty, now it's going to be ugly for a long time."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)