SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — People who lost their homes and belongings in a devastating wildfire were allowed to briefly return to their burned-out neighborhoods Friday as fire officials announced they had turned the corner in taming the blaze.
With evacuation orders lifted in many parts of town, residents of the area where 254 houses were destroyed were given an hour to sift through the wreckage under the eyes of a police escort.
Keith Cooney, who works for a local title company, saw his rented home of three years engulfed in flames on a local news broadcast Sunday and came back to find only a bent metal garage door standing. He spotted a concrete swan given to him by a former neighbor in New Orleans, but not the fireproof box with his important papers.
"I gotta dig through this. This is going to be unbelievable," Cooney said.
The smoke-free skies that greeted Lake Tahoe on Friday morning confirmed the word from fire officials that the threat to more homes and the region’s tourist trade was subsiding after five days.
U.S. Forest Service commanders said they planned to reduce their force by one-fourth. The blaze was 70 percent contained as of Friday, while the amount of land burned held steady at 3,100 acres, or 4.7 square miles, according to U.S. Forest Service incident commander Rich Hawkins.
"Firefighters came in this morning and felt even more comfortable about the approaching containment of this fire," Hawkins said. "I’m feeling pretty good about it."
In the Lake Tahoe Basin, the decision to let homeowners back into the burned-out streets about seven miles from the lake was welcome news to residents who had waited all week to see the devastation for themselves.
Roommates Stephanie Bant, 25, and Heather Gann, 23, stood by a half-burnt home that showed the fire’s capricious nature.
Milk and beer were still in the refrigerator, which stood in a pitch black kitchen. The back door and windows were gone, and led to the charred remains of a deck.
Bant’s bed lay in a melted and burned mass of bedding and blackened coils, while Gann’s piano stood untouched in the other bedroom.