Tahoe’s tough times

An unusually dry winter kept ski resorts near Lake Tahoe short of snow. And wildfires darkened skies on the brink of the July 4 summer kickoff. Fire and ice haven’t been kind to the fabled resort region this year.

"It was a long, slow winter, and it was tough for us because it was our first year in business," said Susan Desrosiers, owner of the Keys Cafe in South Lake Tahoe.

"One or two days we can deal with. The whole summer. …," Desrosiers said, his voice trailing off.

The Angora fire, which destroyed more than 200 homes and other buildings, hit just before Independence Day celebrations, which traditionally draw up to 100,000 people.

"At this point, we don’t have a true figure on what the economic impact will be. I’m hearing that bookings are anywhere from 10 to 25 percent down (for the July 4 period) with people making cancellations or reservations that aren’t coming in," said Patrick Kaler, executive director of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority.

But he was hopeful the fire’s effects would be shortlived.

"Really, the majority of the summer season starts after the Fourth of July. I’m sure that we can bounce back pretty quickly," Kaler said.

Lake Tahoe is 22 miles long and reaches 1,600 feet at its deepest point. One side is in Nevada, with its bright lights and casinos, and the other is in California with the quieter charms of century-old estates and funky family resorts.

For Lisa and Mark Rothstein, the fire did not disrupt their family reunion, which had been planned for months.

"It didn’t deter us. We watched the news every day and saw that the fires weren’t coming any closer. We were hoping they’d be contained sooner, but it hasn’t affected our vacation," said Lisa Rothstein outside Harrah’s Casino on the lake’s south shore.

The fire burned on the southern end of the California side, ravaging everything from vacation palaces to middle-class dwellings to ramshackle hideaways. At times, twisting, blustery winds threatened to carry the fire toward popular tourist destinations strung along the lake’s southern edge, forcing hundreds to evacuate.

As the fires raged, ash fell like black snow on Tahoe’s waters.

But firefighters gained ground as winds dropped; they expected to have the fires contained by early next week.

Because Lake Tahoe is so large there won’t be any immediate changes in water quality, said Jeff Cowen, community liaison for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, a Nevada-California entity charged with protecting the lake.

But the cumulative effects of fire runoff carried into the lake by streams over the coming months is a concern because it includes nutrients that feed algae growth, which can turn the water from its signature clear blue to green, he said.

The lake has been losing clarity at a rate of about a foot a year for 30 years, to a current underwater visibility of 70 feet. It’s a trend officials have been trying to reverse in recent years.

Cowen said it will take at least a month to get usable data on the fire’s effect. To minimize damage, the planning agency will be working with the U.S. Geological Service and the federal forest service to monitor streams and establish erosion control and reforestation.

The bumpy start to summer comes after a winter which, according to the annual May 1 snow survey, ended with a snowpack that was just 29 percent of normal.

The surrounding Sierra Nevada is home to about a dozen ski resorts, including world-class destinations like Squaw Valley USA and the Heavenly Ski Resort.

Revenue totals are still being compiled, but "we do know that we did take somewhat of a hit this year on the lack of snow," said Kaler.

The fire may not put a significant dent in the overall economy because it likely will prompt a flurry of rebuilding, said Cynthia Kroll, a senior regional economist at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

"Once the fire is out, unless a really major area has been taken out, the local business recovers pretty quickly and, in fact, there’s often an infusion of new dollars from the rebuilding," she said.

The housing market is likely to be affected as the displaced scramble for a place to stay. And some small businesses operating on a tight margin may be pushed over the edge by a few bad weeks, she said.

There also may be some redistribution, with business gravitating to other parts of the lake, Kroll said.

Areas on the lake’s north shore have already sent out notices that roads are open and the usual summer events are still on.

Kaler said ad campaigns are planned to get the message out that South Lake Tahoe is open for business.

Meanwhile, residents are girding for what the summer may bring.

"What’s tragic is so many people in this community, their home here was their primary residence," cafe owner Desrosiers said. "That trickles down to everyone, including the cafes."

Recovery is a community thing, too.

The cafe has already collected about $700 to donate to a family that lost its home.

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