SACRAMENTO, Calif. - As the fire danger in the forest around Lake Tahoe grew more acute, the number of houses packed into suburban-style neighborhoods around the lake ballooned as well - increasing the possibility that a blaze would have catastrophic consequences.
About 80 percent of the roughly 2,000 single- and multi-family homes constructed around Lake Tahoe since 1990 stand in areas state fire officials say carry a high hazard for fueling fire, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis of fire maps and building permits.
The risks associated with this building boom were not a secret. After a spell of drought, beetle infestation and tree disease, it had become clear to planners, fire officials and many local residents that conditions were ripe for wildfire.
"It was strongly evident by the early 1990s that we were building up a large backlog of dead trees," said Bob Harris, the forest supervisor at Tahoe from 1988 to 1997.
Yet when a new home is proposed around Lake Tahoe, planners look at whether it is too tall, will create too much noise, whether it will contribute to soil erosion. They preach tree trimming and buffer zones, checking a box when a developer satisfies fire code regulations. But they never prohibit a new home simply because it stands in the midst of a tinderbox.
"I don't believe that's happened in our district," said Martin Goldberg, forestry supervisor for California's Lake Valley Fire Protection District, where the Angora fire took out 250 homes late last month.
Matt Mathes, regional spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said his agency would welcome the chance to warn local governments of the dangers of building in flammable forests. But it doesn't often get invited.
"We're happy to show up and explain in very vivid terms what the potential consequences are," he said. "We can come in with the fire history of a given area, with the severity of the fires, with charts that show what we expect. We would like to be called in more."
The fire hazard level around most of Tahoe is rated high by fire scientists and foresters because of trees packed tightly together and below that a second forest of underbrush and smaller trees providing ready kindling.
As a result, halting development in the zones with high fire hazard would cost counties a lot in lost property taxes and property owners a lot in lost land value.
Of course, fighting fires is expensive, too. The Angora fire alone cost $13.5 million to fight, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection estimates it spends $400 million a year preventing and controlling fires. On top of that, it spent $1.4 billion in the last decade in state emergency funds to suppress fires.
Officials at the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which regulates development in the area, say their hands are tied. A large portion of lots developed today are parcels approved by local governments around Tahoe during the 1950s and 1960s, when the fire hazard was less, and less was known about it.
Since TRPA was established in 1969, it has made sure those lots were developed slowly - allocating a couple hundred a year for building - and in line with a huge list of environmental requirements.
Taking away the right to build on pre-existing lots could draw property rights lawsuits and, regardless, TRPA considers a building moratorium outside its purview. Instead, officials there estimate the 4,000 remaining private parcels will be built out in the next 20 years.
"We were created to manage growth in the Tahoe basin, not to prohibit it," said Jeff Cowen, a TRPA spokesman.
In fact, in its 1987 Regional Plan - the modern Bible for development in the Lake Tahoe basin - TRPA spells out the risk of building in fire-prone areas and then, while calling for efforts to reduce fire hazard, makes it clear that building will be allowed there anyway.
"The decadent and monoculture vegetation on steep slopes is highly susceptible to wild fires," the plan states. "Serious environmental damage, property damage and impacts to public health can result from wildfires. ... The potential for damage to structures can be minimized with various construction techniques and installation of fire-resistant materials. Programs involving the manipulation of vegetation can also reduce fire hazards."
Those kinds of warnings and assurances didn't do much to help Rodney Meagher and his wife, Marie. They are among the thousands of residents whose homes were built after that plan was written.
Earlier this week, Meagher, a retired building contractor, was sifting through the ashes of his wife's "dream house" on Mount Olympia Circle. Almost nothing recognizable remained. He was reduced to collecting melted lumps of her jewelry.
"It's not easy doing this," he said.
Meagher recalled how the couple had come to design and build their house. They had lived in Tahoe for many years when the vacant property next door came up for sale. They bought it and in 1994 built a home with 2,500 square feet, a sunken living room and a soaring entryway.
Today it's all gone. Even so, Meagher said he doesn't regret building in such a high-risk area. He and his wife are considering moving, but not because they're worried about another fire. Meagher said he just wants to get away from tourists and shoveling snow.
"We got a chance to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world," he said.
His attitude appears to reflect that of Californians in general. The state's residents have not shied from living in places prone to natural disaster, even after losing their homes. In Oakland, for instance, the hills are again thickly covered with homes 16 years after a wildfire destroyed 2,700 structures and killed 25 people.
All over California, the state's fire-prone forests are experiencing an influx of residents. From 2001 to 2006, about 7,200 homes were destroyed by wildfire in the state, up from about 2,050 from 1996 to 2000, state data show.
In Tahoe, the risks are especially acute, paradoxically because of the desire to protect the area's pristine environment and its million-dollar homes.
All those houses nestled among all those trees mean that fire agencies have spent years putting out forest fires, rather than allowing them to burn naturally. The lack of fire has allowed more brush and small trees to grow.
"When the Europeans arrived here, the forest was widely spaced, with large-diameter trees and without a lot of undergrowth," said Mathes of the U.S. Forest Service. "You could ride a horse through it.
"Now that same forest is choked with dense underbrush and a lot of small spindly trees competing with each other for nutrients in this drought."
In a healthy forest, there are 50 to 70 trees per acre, said Tom Bonnicksen, emeritus professor of forest science at Texas A&M University and a visiting scholar with the Forest Foundation. In the Lake Tahoe basin, he said, there are 200 to 500 trees per acre.
The basin also continues to feel the effects of heavy logging many decades ago, said Stewart McMorrow, forest fuels manager for the North Tahoe Fire Protection District. The logging left a younger forest that tends to burn more easily.
Yet these danger signs haven't scared people away. Noting that many locales carry some degree of risk, Meagher, the Angora-area property owner, said: "What are you going to do, send people to Kansas? The Red Cross truck that came here (to Tahoe) was just arriving from Kansas."
His neighbor, Larry Lambdin, feels the same way. He and his wife hope to rebuild their burned house, which was actually the Meaghers' house before 1995. They're just waiting to find out if their insurance policy will provide enough money.
"Each place has its own inherent dangers," Lambdin said. "I really like it here, and we'll stay here if we can."
With more homes going up weekly in areas flush with trees and brush, it's just a matter of time before another Angora fire - or worse - strikes the Tahoe region, experts said.
"These trees explode because there is so much fuel there," Bonnicksen said.
Yet instead of further limiting building in the aftermath of the Angora fire, local building officials have pledged to do everything they can to help residents rebuild, streamlining the permit process and waiving fees.
Not even environmental groups have used the fire hazard to push for a housing moratorium in Tahoe. "It would be kind of a weird campaign; there's thousands of houses here already," said Patricia Hickson, former chairwoman of the Tahoe-area branch of the Sierra Club.
Like local officials, they've concentrated instead on making homes safer. In 2003, the Sierra Club sponsored legislation that requires homes in high-risk areas to maintain a cleared buffer zone of 100 feet.
However, the law carries no mechanism for enforcement of the "defensible space" for existing homes. According to TRPA, most of the properties in the area affected by the fire did not have it.
Tahoe-area fire officials also require new homes to contain defensible space, but they've found that ensuring the buffer is maintained over time is more difficult.
"Where we have a problem is when we have to re-evaluate to see if they are still in compliance," said Norbert Szczurek, division chief for the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District.
In the territory where the Angora fire occurred, the Lake Valley Fire Protection District has been doing voluntary inspections of defensible space compliance for more than a decade, said Goldberg, the forestry supervisor.
But the backlog is huge. "We had just gotten started (near Angora)," Goldberg said. "That's the sad part of it all."
Complicating the efforts is human nature: an attraction to trees. Lew Allison and his wife, Beverly, live in the middle of a zone that, according to the state, carries a very high hazard for fueling fire. Yet eight years ago, when they bought the house, Allison said he "would have been disappointed if the trees (had) been destroyed."
He did recently cut down a couple himself but, he said, "We are willing to take the risk."
Lambdin, whose house burned, said he and most of his neighbors did keep their land cleared. But some out-of-town owners did not, he said, and the vacant lot next to him on Mount Olympia Circle was choked with pine needles and trees.
"We really have to work with the non-resident owners to make sure their lots are cleaned up, too," Lambdin said. "If you do your part, but other people don't, it doesn't make a difference."
Local officials said the Angora fire likely will accelerate efforts to make the area safer by thinning the forests surrounding Lake Tahoe and by working more aggressively with homeowners toward defensible space goals.
New statewide building code standards slated to take effect next year also should improve safety in Tahoe and other fire-prone areas, said John Pang, chief of the Meeks Bay Fire Protection District on Lake Tahoe's west shore. Among its provision are ignition-resistant construction for roofs, walls, decks and windows in the severe fire hazard zones.
The challenges will continue to grow along with the trees and underbrush, however. Most of the 4,000 private parcels remaining in the basin likely will fall in places with conditions ripe for sustaining fire.
"With that kind of fuel surrounding the basin," said Bonnicksen, the forest scientist from Texas, "it's a wonder that the Angora fire was stopped at 3,100 acres."