In a temporary setback for strained firefighters and a ravaged community, flames leaped a containment line Tuesday afternoon, threatening hundreds of homes only hours after residents had felt that it was safe to return.
By evening, firefighters, including two who escaped danger by using emergency shelters, had saved the neighborhood. But the episode was a grim reminder of how tentative progress can be when battling the massive, unpredictable walls of flame that have rapidly engulfed areas near this resort town since the fire began Sunday afternoon.
For most of Tuesday, the winds were calm. Then about 3 p.m., the winds whipped up the flames at the southwest edge of the resort town, forcing frantic residents who had returned to their Gardner Mountain neighborhood to flee yet again as thick, orange smoke billowed through their streets.
“I was feeling good,” said Kate Tretheway, 35, who was evacuated from her home Sunday and from a friend’s house Tuesday as she was loading her pickup truck, calming a distraught neighbor, and fitting her young niece and nephew with smoke masks. “But not today, not with the wind,” she said.
Officials also were apprehensive, realizing that the flames could move beyond Gardner Mountain into nearby densely populated neighborhoods.
“Potentially there could be 800 to 900 homes in harm’s way,” said Sgt. Don Atkinson of the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department.
“There’s a lot of houses down there, and when it gets down into the houses it gets very explosive,” he said, fearful that power lines and propane tanks could make the task of protecting the town even more difficult.
Just before 3 p.m., a sudden torrent of flame on a hillside near Gardner Mountain caused a tremendous, sucking roar. Within moments, trees were consumed. A firefighter ran down the trail, shouting, “The crews holding that line are running -- they’re headed for a safety zone!”
The flare-up, which was caused by gusting winds, pushed the blaze north, and flying embers created several spot fires, resulting in a loss of about a mile of the line that firefighters had constructed Monday night, said Jackie Faike of the U.S. Forest Service.
No firefighters suffered serious injuries, including the two who used the pup tent-like emergency shelters to cover themselves for 45 minutes as the fire moved past them, National Forest Service officials said.
Even before an evacuation order was issued, exhausted residents knew the score. They scrambled to get their possessions and pets together. Some watered their wood-chip landscaping and turned on their sprinklers before leaving.
By Tuesday night, forest service officials said the blaze had consumed more than 3,000 acres and damaged or destroyed 225 structures, of which 178 were homes. They said the fire was 44% contained but progress was tentative, especially with the gusty winds that were predicted for the rest of the week.
The fire originated near the popular Seneca Pond recreation area, Forest Service spokeswoman Beth Brady said.
Officials delayed announcing the fire’s cause at least until today, but they said they believe it was human activity, perhaps accidental.
The forest 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.
Before the grim drama that occurred at Gardner Mountain, residents all over this close-knit town of 26,000 had started trudging back to their homes -- or to what remained of them.
Neighbors shared their stories, vowed to rebuild, hugged one another and cried. A community where dot-com millionaires mingle with folks who work at lakeside motels and nearby casinos, South Lake Tahoe came together for the dispossessed as the fire raged on.
At a relief center at Lake Tahoe Community College, Ken Bonham, a 61-year-old El Dorado County deputy public defender, wistfully studied a photo of his home in ruins.
“Geez, man,” he said softly.
His 27-year-old daughter Leah had snapped the photo Sunday night, even as flames sizzled around her. All that remained was the stump of a cinderblock wall, some charred railroad ties and the green, well-watered lawn.
“You always hear, ‘You’re out in a forested area -- it can happen,’ ” Bonham said. “And it happened.”
Dozens of homeowners whose rural havens had suddenly been turned into smoldering ash wandered into the center, where they were greeted with platters of free sandwiches, embraces from sympathetic neighbors, and suggestions from county and state officials who were offering to guide them through the crisis.
Clutching paper face masks to protect their lungs from the smoky air, the Allegrini family asked a sheriff’s official about getting an escort so they could view what had been their house. They lost heirloom furniture and old silver, as well as the veil and shoes for 27-year-old Alicia’s upcoming wedding.
“We had a beautiful view,” Regina Allegrini, 53, said wistfully.
Her husband Rick, 51, was already talking about the next chapter of their lives. “We’re here to regroup and rebuild and see how we move through this process,” he said.
At the community college relief center, distressed families conferred with officials about their losses. Regina Allegrini applied over the Internet for a new Social Security card. Her husband filled out the damage assessment form that could qualify the family for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Nearly every local official manning the tables knew friends or had relatives who had lost homes to the fire.
“It’s more instinctive than by design,” said Judi Harkins, assistant to El Dorado County Supervisor Norma Santiago, whose district suffered major losses. “We are so interconnected -- it’s a web here.”
As she spoke, tears streaked her cheeks. She had just been consoling a longtime friend and community leader, Delicia Spees, who lost her home of 31 years.
“This community is amazing,” said Spees, 56, who had been in Sacramento on Sunday and was unable to retrieve anything from the house. “We’re all rebuilding.”
Times staff writers Eric Bailey, Tami Abdollah, Julie Cart and Steve Chawkins contributed to this report.