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'Carnage everywhere': Exploded homes, collapsed buildings after Tahoe's worst winter in 70 years

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Leroy N. Soetoro

Apr 30, 2023, 2:57:47 PM4/30/23

A loud boom broke the March afternoon silence in Bekah Chance’s South Lake
Tahoe neighborhood. She wondered whether the sound came from the mountain
above the town, where the Heavenly ski resort occasionally detonates
explosives to temper avalanche danger.

More weather: Maps show how California’s snowfall compares with past
In fact, a house down the street had exploded. Winter storms had buried
the unoccupied home in a thick blanket of snow, and as the ice melted and
refroze over several weeks, it cracked at least one gas line. All it took
for the house to blow up was a wayward spark.

Thirty minutes later, a real estate agent arrived to show two prospective
home buyers the neighborhood. Confused and unable to find the house she
was supposed to show, the agent drove by Chance — who had gone outside
after hearing the blast — and asked for directions. Chance responded that
the home she was looking for had just been destroyed.

“I told her, ‘I don’t think you’ll be showing anything today,’ ” Chance
recalled with a chuckle.

With April warmth hitting the mountains, South Lake Tahoe and other nearby
communities are finally crawling out of their most extreme winter in
memory, confronting the damage from having too much of a good thing.

Heavy snowfall is typically welcome in Tahoe: Not only does it excite the
town’s core of outdoor enthusiasts and drive the tourism economy, but a
deep and lasting snowpack soothes anxieties about wildfire and drought.
The first gusts of frigid air that blow flakes across the peaks each fall
carry palpable anticipation of winter’s arrival.

“Everyone has that notion of, ‘Let’s have the biggest snow year on record!
We can’t wait,’ ” said Sean Hutchinson, senior manager of lift operations
at Heavenly Mountain Resort, who moved to South Lake five years ago to
work at the ski area and is excited about deep snow, though even for him
the circumstances have been extreme. “When you’re finally in it, it’s
like, ‘Oh s—, what did we ask for?’ ”

More than 50 feet of snow fell on South Lake Tahoe this past winter,
burying the town of 21,000 in a frozen white crust that is just beginning
to thaw. The tally is grim: Two exploded homes, 10 collapsed buildings and
an unknown number of residents displaced from damaged or inaccessible
homes. Mangled street signs, potholed streets and buried cars are

At least 20 buildings, including a vacant Kmart, have been red-tagged as
unsafe for occupancy. A block away from Hutchinson’s home, the roof of a
gas station collapsed before the whole facility went up in flames.

“There’s carnage everywhere,” said Kim George, fire marshal and battalion
chief for South Lake Tahoe Fire Rescue.

Even locals who have lived in the basin for decades have been stunned by
some of the freakish calamities that have befallen the town over the past
five months. And the more they dig, the more damage they’re likely to

“All the snow we wished for has been a nightmare for some people,”
Hutchinson said.

‘Like a swimming pool fell through the ceiling’
Roof collapses, new this winter, came to symbolize the unprecedented
burden weighing on residents.

South Lake officials recommended that people clear their roofs when more
than 3 feet of snow piled up. But high snow loads built up on the many
empty and unattended second homes and vacation rentals around town and, in
some instances, caused decks to cave in or bowed roof eaves.

In one striking case, a warehouse that belonged to a beach cleanup company
pancaked under the weight of snow on its roof. Fortunately, no one was
inside at the time. Visiting the site recently, George pointed to cars and
machinery visible beneath the rubble. No one will be allowed to go into
the wreckage until after the snow has melted, she said.

“We don’t normally train on building collapses. They’re very unusual,”
George said.

Across the California-Nevada border, similar issues have plagued the
casino town of Stateline. There have been 10 roof collapses and numerous
gas leaks, said Michelle Turner, a spokesperson for the Tahoe Douglas Fire
Protection District. Between 15 and 20 buildings there have been red-
tagged as well, she said, some “showing signs of potential collapse.”

At a Raley’s grocery store in Stateline, “it looks like a swimming pool
fell through the ceiling,” George said. Soon, the place started giving off
a stink of rotting food, which officials worried would attract bears and
other animals. So the grocery store hired a crew of specialists to
retrieve anything perishable. The store will not reopen, said Chelsea
Minor, a Raley’s spokesperson.

Perhaps surprisingly, South Lake hasn’t recorded any deaths directly
attributable to storms or heavy snow, George said. However, officials have
seen a rash of hospitalizations as people tumble off their roofs while
trying to clear them of stubborn frozen formations known as ice dams. In
one case, a giant slab slid off a gabled roof and pinned a man standing
below, crushing his legs, she said.

Snow removal companies are working at full tilt, responding to so much
demand that Tahoe authorities are warning residents about price gouging.
In at least one case, a company reportedly quoted a homeowner $20,000 to
clear a roof.

A constant fear
The unceasing weather has taken a toll on locals. South Lake’s social
networks have been awash in requests for assistance — shoveling snow,
carpooling, running errands. Its outdoors-loving populace was largely
sequestered inside, fighting cabin fever.

Maintaining a lifeline to the world meant digging and grinding out a
narrow path from one’s front door multiple times a day — backbreaking
work. As snow piled up, the footpaths came to resemble icy box canyons.

“If you’re having to shovel out every day, and not getting those breaks in
the storms to go out and enjoy the snow, it starts taxing you mentally,”
said Dane Henry, a 21-year resident of South Lake Tahoe.

Henry lives with his wife, 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter in a
cabin-like home with a steep-sloped roof among the pines off Pioneer
Trail. While strenuously shoveling out his home parking spot one night in
January, he slipped a disk in his back, an injury that shifted the burden
of daily digging to his wife and still bothers him today.

Later, a block of ice slipped off Henry’s roof and smashed through his
redwood deck, leaving a gaping hole in the planks. Another falling ice dam
took the roof gutter with it. Henry’s driveway is still crusted over. He
knows it’ll need repair.

Simple errands like dropping kids off at school or going on grocery runs
became grueling, even risky endeavors. Parking lots grew into towering
snow banks. For drivers, basic left turns across traffic became white-
knuckle maneuvers with views obstructed in all directions.

Many residents described feeling trapped or anxious, overwhelmed and
battling depression. In casual conversation, neighbors wondered to each
other whether they’d be forced to evacuate. Some decamped altogether,
seeking relief.

“I see a lot of locals saying, ‘We’re over it. We’re sick of it,’ ”
Hutchinson said. “My neighbor told me, ‘I’m going away for the next three
months. Can you just check on my house to make sure it’s not collapsed?’ ”

The melt arrives
On a sunny April afternoon, cars, homes, fire hydrants and other
infrastructure remained encased in crunchy, dirt-caked ice. Snow walls 10
feet high lined neighborhood streets. Cars abandoned for winter began to
re-emerge, even as telephone poles and tall pines stayed half-buried.

“It’s kind of a running joke: those certain cars, now coming back from the
dead,” George said.

Chance and a couple of her neighbors sipped mimosas on one of their
driveways, watching their kids jump on pogo sticks. The adults reflected
on both the challenges of the past couple of years — the Caldor Fire that
burned into town, the pandemic, and now this winter — and the sense of
camaraderie in their communities.

“Everyone is in good spirits,” said Mark Budgell, Chance’s neighbor. “It’s
the first day where it feels like the snow is finally melting.”

Once the spring thaw is properly under way, authorities worry about
another hazard: the abundance of meltwater. So far, it hasn’t caused any
flooding problems, George said. But the Upper Truckee River, which flows
through town into the lake, is already running high and could swell above
its banks and flood Highway 50, the town’s main thoroughfare. That would
essentially cut the town in half and thwart fire and rescue crews.

Some South Lake locals are formulating exit strategies in the event of
another banner snow year.

“It’s not that we’re scared off of winter. But we are going to build into
our budget, how can we take a break and go somewhere else for a month?”
said Briana Gokay, who lives with her partner off Pioneer Trail.

Dane Henry, whose redwood deck was punctured by falling ice, said this
year “was a good reminder that you live in the mountains.” For his
children, “it was a good toughen-’em-up learning tool.”

“Those were the positives,” Henry said. “But I’m definitely psyched for
spring to come.”

Reach Gregory Thomas:; Twitter: @gregrthomas.
Reach Claire Hao:; Twitter: @clairehao_

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