Plane crash triggers fire near Tahoe

A single-engine plane crash killed two people and sparked a raging wildfire that continued to burn out of control late Monday night near Luther Pass.

About a dozen families were temporarily evacuated and a portion of Highway 89 was closed in both directions. The fire has consumed more than 100 acres as of press time.

A Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said the bodies were found at the crash site in the rugged Elbert Lake area about three miles south of Echo Summit. The cause of the crash was unknown and the plane's identification numbers were not readable.

Lake Tahoe Airport workers had received no notification of any missing plane. Officials did not know who the victims were as of Monday.

Mindy Johnke of Oasis Aviation said if there had been a crash, it's "very strange" the airport had not received a call from the FAA or the National Transportation Safety Board.

Scott Cahill, who was working in the airport tower, said there's a chance the plane flying just outside its jurisdiction was passing through. Therefore, authorities might pass up a call to Lake Tahoe.

Fourteen hand crews from the Forest hotshot team from Plumas County fought back the blaze that made a dramatic shift northeast by evening. Fire crews planned to work through the night, staging two perpendicular lines across the Hawley Grade Trail between the Upper Truckee River and Meadow Creek. The terrain located near Elbert Lake is steep and remote.

"Apparently it's raging pretty good," El Dorado County Sheriff's Department Lt. Kevin House said of the wildfire, which forced a voluntary evacuation of about a dozen homes in the Bridge Tract area near Grass Lake Road, the last street leading up to Luther Pass.

The evacuation was lifted at about 6 p.m., but the California Highway Patrol closed Highway 89 from Meyers to Pickett Junction because of poor visibility due to smoke. As of press time, the highway was still closed.

The fire was burning about half-mile away from the highway, officials reported late Monday. Strike teams from the Forest Service, the California Department of Forestry and Nevada Department of Forestry, were sent to the fire lines by late Monday afternoon, said Brian Schafer, fire chief for Lake Valley Fire Protection District.

About 350 firefighters have been assigned to the Showers Fire, which is classified as type 2. This means the fire is serious enough to warrant extra personnel but that no homes are immediately threatened. The 670-acre Gondola Fire that burned near Heavenly Ski Resort on July 3-4 was classified as type 1.

"The fire is burning erratically, but is no longer a threat to homes," said Susanne Johnson of the U.S. Forest Service's Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

By midafternoon, the blaze spread rapidly as it was fanned by winds. Authorities grounded all air tankers because of the high winds.

Most of the evacuated were ordered to Meyers Elementary School, where Red Cross personnel remain on standby in case the direction of the fire changes. The school is also the site of the multiagency fire command center.

"If it really flares up, we're ready," said Dorothy McGuire, government liaison for the Red Cross of South Lake Tahoe.

Fire investigator Paul Tyler of the Forest Service said the fire ignited rapidly and spread because of the fuel from the plane crash. The wind caused spot fires, which ignited dead and downed logs along with tinder-dry brush.

"It was fueled right with aviation fuel which made it take off pretty quickly," Tyler said. "It's burning ahead of itself."

Highway 50 over Echo Summit resembled a drive-in theater, with people lining the road to watch the huge plume of smoke head east.

Bryan Wassom of Pleasanton, Calif. pulled over at one of the viewing turnouts on the major thoroughfare.

"We just wanted to get a look at it," the technical engineer said, cradling a camera in one hand and his son, Alex, in the other.

-The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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