Washoe Fire of 2007: The power of recovery

By Tim Hauserman 

My bike cut its way down the steep switchbacks then rolled swiftly through the thick manzanita to the spectacular viewpoint above Lake Tahoe. To my left sat a row of houses, perched on top of the hill, below lay a thick mantle of low lying brush, and further down, a dense forest of trees.  Past the trees, a view of much of Tahoe’s west shore with snow capped Mt. Tallac serving as a centerpiece. This spot is now one of my favorite places to get off my bike and take in Tahoe’s grandeur.  Eleven years earlier on a windy summer day, a fire roared up this hill and nearly took out hundreds of home just a mile as the crow flies from Tahoe City. 

On August 18th, 2007 I was given the rare opportunity to crew for my brother Dan Hauserman on his sailboat in the Wednesday night sailing races. It was an extremely windy day and as we set sail from Lake Forest towards Homewood for the race, we saw a thick, dark cloud of smoke coming from the west shore. Just two months earlier, The Angora Fire had burned over 250 homes on Tahoe’s south shore, so the spectacle was particularly terrifying.  

At first we couldn’t tell exactly where the fire was and where it was going. My thoughts were with my teenage daughter home alone in Ward Canyon, another daughter at work in Tahoe City and my wife who was holding an open house at a cabin in Tahoe Park, just a half mile from where the fire started. Where was the fire going and were any of them in danger?

We could see bright flashes of wind driven flames, as we struggled to keep the boat flat in the relentless gale. A helicopter arrived dumping water, and we began pleading to the sky: “More planes, bigger planes…and while you are at it, rain and less wind!”  Once we had sailed to just a 1/2 mile off shore of the fire it was still hard to determine exactly where the fire was, but we could see the wind was driving it towards Tahoe City, and that hundreds of homes were in its path.

We reached Homewood about the time we learned the sailboat race had been cancelled since Highway 89 was closed for the fire. As we sailed our way back our eyes were glued to the fire, unable to tell whether it was getting worse or the firefighters were slowly getting a handle on it. That night, I stayed with my daughter in Tahoe City while we waited for the road to open so we could get to our home on the west shore. We realized there was nothing we could do, except hope. 

The fire started when high winds reignited a charcoal BBQ on Washoe Way along the edge of Tahoe Park. The fire burned several houses on Washoe Way before racing up the hill through thick forest to burn three houses on the edge of Tahoe Woods Blvd. It then continued into the forest adjacent to the development. Fortunately, that forest that had been extensively thinned to reduce fire danger just the year before, which slowed the fire down so that fire fighters were able to get it under control.

Over the next few years, the burned trees were removed, and manzanita and other quick growing bushes grew where the trees had been. New homes replaced those that were burned, and a new trail appeared which headed from where the pavement ended on Tahoe Woods Blvd, past the new lake view where my bike and I rested, and then ascended to Page Meadows.

To the casual observer who doesn’t know the history, where the fire occurred just looks like a hillside slope with brush instead of trees, and a place where several new homes have been built in the last eleven years. For those who know the story, it’s a reminder of the terror that can be caused by a forest fire, of the reason why the forests are managed to reduce fire danger, and by the power of the land to recover and recreate itself.