In Tahoe’s dire housing crisis, a middle-of-the-night blaze devastates 30 locals

15 mins read

A resident from Northern California, Ashtyn Rich, woke up in the middle of the night and witnessed how fire destroys the forest. She was next to her boyfriend, Noah Escobal, and then she saw everyone that lives in the forest dreads in flames.

Ashtyn Rich said, “I just saw orange. At first, for about five seconds, it didn’t register in my head, like what was going on. And then I was like, ‘Noah, there’s a fire. A fire! Fire!’”

PG&E turned off power affects 345,000 customers in Northern California earlier on the night of October 25. PG&E was anticipating what they called the “strongest winds of wildfire season thus far.” A cold front was blowing in. The temperature drops and becomes freezing. Wind gusts higher than 100 mph were recorded at the top of the ridges of the Sierra Nevada ski resorts. The National Weather Service was then issued a red flag warning. The weather conditions, dry and windy, were clued-up for fire danger at the height of California’s biggest wildfire season. And just before 3 am on Monday, October 26, Cisco Grove Campground is on fire, located on Donner Summit about a half hour’s drive west from Truckee.

The Truckee Fire Protection District received a call at 2:53 am, Cisco Grove Campground got a fire. When the first units arrived on the scene, the main building, which houses a grocery store and apartment unit, was burning. Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service also rejoined. The public information officer for Truckee Fire Protection District, Laura Brow says, that all occupants had evacuated from the scorching building by the time fire troops arrived. The troops work fast to hold fire and prevent it from spreading, causing more destruction to the other structures and the surrounding forest.t

Brown says, “We got very lucky to be there quickly. It was a high wind night and there were some things that were starting to catch, but those are things that those agencies obviously worked toward extinguishing right away.”

Cisco Grove is not a typical campground. About 30 full-time occupants live there, renting apartments, tiny homes, or lots to park an RV. Some of them live on a school bus that they designed like a home.

It is hard to find an affordable place to rent in Truckee and Lake Tahoe, and even more difficult in the midst of the pandemic. An incursion of novices, many from the Bay Area, are driving up real estate prices and competing for the few available long-term rentals. Many occupants live at ski resorts in Cisco Grove, working in Truckee and North Tahoe. They knew this place either Craigslist or word of mouth. Rentals come from $800 for apartments to $1,200 for tiny homes. The occupants say that the campground is the best as it is an affordable, lucky find with a strong sense of community.

Everyone lives there to hang out with each other. Stephen Sooter, a 22-year-old supervisor in lift operations at Sugar Bowl, said, “We all cook dinners together. There’s great backcountry skiing on Signal Peak. I hate to leave this place.”

After the fire, people occupying Cisco Grove Campground are unsure where they are going to end up. The fire leaves damage as it destroys only the main building. However, occupants receive mixed messages from property management about whether they have to leave because damages are sustained during the blaze.

Sooter told SFGATE two days after the incident, “We don’t really have anywhere to go. Winter is a month away, if that.”

Rich is 18 years old and works as a barista at Starbucks. She moved to Truckee from Kansas last year. Her boyfriend, Escobal, had left to warn the people living in the campsites just down the street. After Rich evacuated the incident area, while waiting in her car near the campground entrance, she watches the fire crews fighting the flames.

Rich says, “My boyfriend pulled a U–ie to go make sure everyone in the back got told [there was a fire] and was getting evacuated. He got really worried because he didn’t see any cars coming from the back.”

Around 3 am Escobal was shouting, “There’s a huge fire!” Sooter was asleep in the tiny home he rents with his roommate when he heard someone is banging on his window, and it was Escobal.

Sooter got out of the bed and made it to his front door.

He said, “I saw everyone scrambling and I smelled, like, burning rubber and fire.” He immediately packs his car as fast as possible and leaves the incident area, picking up three of his neighbors. Kevin Donahoe, 36 years old, works at Sugar Bowl, says he hopped in Sooter’s car in his pajamas. As they drove past the flames, Sooter says he could feel the burning heat through his car.

Troy Richmond, 44 years old, living in a tiny house with his mother and his cousins. He lives in Truckee for 24 years and runs the yard at Truckee rents, a business that leases heavy equipment. He woke up to a loud popping sound, and he heard Escobal pounding on the side of his house, shouting for him to wake up and get out.

Richmond says, “Driving underneath that fire, you could hear the ashes and all the stuff smacking the side of your car. The crazy things is, I ride dirt bikes and stuff. I scare myself for fun. And that was f-king frightening.”

The other people living there have similar stories: Waking up in the middle of the night. Scrambling to put on clothes, and packing essential materials, and get out. Alyssa Hill and Evan Olson both work at Boreal Mountain Resort. They secure their pets (cat and dog), then left.

Lucas Wilson from Alabama, 25 years old. He said, “The power is out. It’s cold. I’m half-naked getting out of bed. My mind was just scrambled. Honestly, I can’t even tell you what I was thinking because I was just in such a state of shock and it’s dark and I can’t see and I get out of bed and I’m trying to get my shirt out of a ball to put it on and just walking in circles.”

Some of the tenants stayed in the place. However, many of them, one by one, get their cars, drove out and left their homes, past the burning building, and watching the firefighters arrived.

Ryan Lazalier lived in a school bus, or as he calls it, a “skoolie.” His bus has a front door and porch to start, so evacuating is not as simple as driving the school bus off the lot. The 44 years old carpenter drove out by his truck and trailer, leaving his school bus behind if he had to evacuate.

The 27 years old Forrest Miller says he never woke up.

Miller said, “I’m just grateful that the fire didn’t go back there. It was just me and my cat with a vehicle that doesn’t even work right now.” He was living in his tiny home, and he said no one knew he was home that night.

Between Cal Fire, the Truckee Fire Protection District, and U.S. Forest Service, teams could take down the fire from the grocery store building. A nearby tree burned down to a large blackened remnant. A trailer in front of the building caught fire, and the tires melted, so the frame landed lopsided on the pavement. Windows are shattered and left blackened voids. The heat of the burning fire causes the metal panels of the roof to bent and distorted.

Kevin McKenie, Truckee Fire Marshal, is currently investigating the cause of the fire, according to the reports of Truckee Fire Protection District’s Brown.

Sooter, together with his neighbors, returned home in the campground at dawn. The fire was contained, but his confidence in his housing situation quickly faded as questions and uncertainty mounted. The day after the fire event, Sooter told SFGATE that the damage had taken effect as the transformer and several pumps have been destroyed. He also received word from Zeke Bossenbroek, on-site property manager. The tenants may have to leave the premises.

Bossenbroek told SFGATE that no occupants had been evicted. The property management company, Northgate Resorts, is based in Michigan, and they operate a handful of campgrounds, water parks, and RV parks. The property is owned by Snow Flower, an LLC based in Los Altos and Las Vegas. According to Bossenbroek, Northgate Resorts signed a lease with Snow Flower LLC to manage the Cisco Grove Campground in late September.

Bossenbroek declined to give his comments even though he was on the premises during the fire.

Sooter posted on Facebook looking for a new place they can stay. His post caught the attention of Collin Frolich, the owner of Landing Locals. Frolich’s company matches local occupants with empty second homes. Frolich says, “There are a lot of empty second homes on top of Donner Summit that are completely boarded up for the winter.” However, there are only a few homes available. Frolich’s company is trying their best to favor a program from the town Truckee that pays second homeowners to rent to locals.

Frolich says, “We still have hundreds of people looking for housing. You have the pressure on the renter community. Their jobs are insecure, they can’t find housing and they can’t compete with the Bay Area. And then if you are in a fire when you have something lined up for the winter – it’s the fourth straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

Sooter got lucky. Donner Ski Ranch contacted Frolich that he was looking for local renters. A week after the fire incident, Sooter and his roommate moved in.

However, many of the occupants at Cisco Grove Campground are still waiting to see what will happen in their homes. The electricity is restored in some parts of the campground. However, tiny homes don’t have electricity two weeks after the fire. In early November, a storm dropped nearly a foot of snow on their doorsteps.

Rich said, “Where are we all supposed to go?” Rich apartment didn’t burn down, but it takes huge damage from the smoke. Rich posted a video from the fire to Facebook to message that she is looking for a new place to stay. As of the moment, she’s at her friend’s house in Truckee.

Hill and Olson, a couple working at Boreal, say that electricity is tough to live without electricity. They can’t just barely heat their home during the day using a generator powering an electric heater and a small propane heater. Their pipes often freeze overnight. They are currently staying at the campground, and it is close to their jobs, and they haven’t able to find anywhere else to live.

Hill said, “We are just hoping to find a new place to live that is affordable in the area. Which doesn’t seem likely right now.”

Thomas Lake

Resident tech nerd for the SF Times.