When the June 2007 Angora Fire burned its way into the residential streets of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., firefighters were ready.

The neighborhoods, unfortunately, were not.

As it always does, Cal Fire—the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection—threw everything it had at the fast-moving forest fire. “Cal Fire does not have a ‘let-burn' or ‘fire-management' philosophy, period,” explains California Fire Marshal Kate Dargan. “Our policy is to immediately extinguish all fires, and we apply all resources—air tankers, ground resources, firefighters, bulldozers, helicopters—I mean, we will put everything on a fire to keep it as small as possible, every time.”

But many houses in the threatened communities were built with wood siding, wood decks, and even wood-shake roofs. Adding to the difficulties, the houses sat in heavily wooded lots—many of them thick with underbrush or littered with fallen branches and pine needles.

To limit silt erosion into the nearby lake, points out California Building Industry Association (CBIA) official Bob Raymer, “they have effectively allowed the use of four different toppings for your land—and all four of them are burnable. I mean, up there, for some reason, they allowed the use of pine needles as ground cover.” Pine needles had also accumulated on roofs and in gutters—ready tinder for any wind-blown spark.

Once in the neighborhood, the fire spread rapidly from house to house. Even with help—from local fire departments, “hot shot” firefighting teams from other states, and U.S. Forest Service crews—Cal Fire could not stop the fire from destroying 254 homes. “In these conflagration fires,” says Dargan, “where dozens or hundreds of homes are burning in a short period of time, there are not enough fire engines to protect every structure.”

In big fires such as the Angora fire, that practical limit forces firefighters to make tough tactical choices on the ground. Hour by hour, crews have to balance their own personal danger against the chances of saving a house. Says Chief Brad Harris of Cal Fire's Nevada-Yuba-Placer unit north of Lake Tahoe, “The community expects that firefighters are going to risk all to protect their home. And there are certain risks that we will take. But we will also make wise decisions. We are not in the business of trading firefighter lives for property. If it's going to cost a firefighter's life to save a property where we don't have a likelihood of success, it's time to move on and protect one that we can protect.”

Because big fires can cause major destruction, fireground commanders occasionally catch heat for being too cautious.

FATAL TRAGEDY: Investigators examine a destroyed fire engine at the site of a deadly “burnover” near  Cabazon, Calif., where five Forest Service firefighters  died in a vain attempt to save one isolated house during the November 2006 Esperanza  fire.
FATAL TRAGEDY: Investigators examine a destroyed fire engine at the site of a deadly “burnover” near Cabazon, Calif., where five Forest Service firefighters died in a vain attempt to save one isolated house during the November 2006 Esperanza fire.

After the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire near Show Low, Ariz., for example, local firefighters castigated Forest Service incident commanders for hanging back from neighborhood defense. Linden, Ariz., firefighter Gary Holdcroft spoke for many when he wrote in his 2004 book about the fire, Walking Through the Ashes, “I have nothing but respect for the men and women who did the actual work. My gripe is with the people who think homes and neighborhoods and towns are expendable.”

As the huge fire bore down on Pinedale and Clay Springs, Ariz., Holdcroft says, “every piece of firefighting equipment was pulled out, on the orders of the Fire Service, and sent to a field five miles away. When a crew from Clay Springs [and eventually Linden] broke ranks from the Fire Service to try to defend their homes, they were branded as renegades.” In 2006, showing a reporter a photo of dozens of engines parked at a staging area, Pinedale firefighter Charlie Brown—one of the few who went back to town against orders—asked, “You see masses of people in there. Why did they run with this equipment and leave us?”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.