Tahoe blaze burns moments into memories
Portraits from the fire
By Chris Bowman - Bee Staff Writer
Last Updated 12:20 am PDT Sunday, July 1, 2007
PAT HENNESSY: For the first time in 30 years, the retired firefighter is seeing destroyed homes, especially his own, in a new way. "It's just full of skeletons of childhood memories," he said. Sacramento Bee/Hector AmezcuaSOUTH LAKE TAHOE -- The sudden losses suffered by hundreds amid the splendor of this alpine resort area are by now known the world over.
What's left behind?
The spirit to rebuild, the will to protect the famously clear lake, the determination to reduce the risk of another catastrophic forest fire.And the moments frozen in time by journalists from all points to chronicle the Angora fire.
In other words, photographs.
The Bee revisited some of these moments to sketch out the stories and complete the portraits of individuals caught by the camera.
'We've still got the view'
Pat Hennessy, 54, is a retired firefighter who drafted himself back into the ranks to battle the Angora blaze -- after seeing his own house burn to the foundation.
No sooner did his home of 20 years vanish than he hopped on his water-tender truck and got himself assigned to fire crews.
On Saturday, he returned to his home site off Lake Tahoe Boulevard to search for anything left intact. There was more at stake than just his own family's belongings. His garage had served as a storehouse for many generations of Hennessys, dating back to their arrival from Germany during the California Gold Rush.
His '49er ancestors owned butcher shops in Downieville and Sierra City. They used the income to run the family-owned stamp mill, the Kentucky Mine, now a historic Nevada County park.
"I've seen the aftermath of many house fires," Hennessy said Saturday as he surveyed his own ashen heap. "They're really no longer homes -- they are just rubble."
Now, of course, he's developed a different perspective.
"It's just full of skeletons of childhood memories," Hennessy said as he pointed out a toddler-sized 1950s pedal tractor. He found a heap of twisted, tiny railroad track that went with the 1930s Lionel train set handed down from his father.
What remains of those homes? The outline of very personal property.
"This was the first time in 30 years of firefighting that I don't like the media trampling on ruins. Before, I never thought about it. It was just rubble.
"You start recognizing things, and then you start thinking, hey, maybe I'll find something. I found myself walking around saying, did this make it? Did that make it?"
On Friday, an insurance adjuster had stepped into the garage area to document damage, Hennessy recalled. "I said, 'Hey, you're trampling all over my Life magazine collection.' Not everybody has every issue of Life magazine -- and I mean every issue from 1936 to 1975."
Hennessy continues to talk about his house and things in the present because his family has no doubt about rebuilding.
With arms akimbo, Hennessy stood in what had been his living room and looked out at what had been his picture- window view of a forest service meadow.
"We've still got the view," he said. "It just has a little charcoal."