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SF Gate

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Like most human tragedies, Angora Fire irresistible to spectators

Along with wind shifts, floating embers and evacuation orders, homeowners and firefighters in the Angora Fire in South Lake Tahoe must deal with another unpredictable factor -- the gawkers.

Onlookers drawn by the spectacle of the fire and firefighters' dramatic efforts have at times fought with Tahoe residents and blocked traffic in attempts to wander close to fire zones. Fire authorities say they often have to deal with such lookie-loos, and they warn that people need to stay away from fire areas.

"They're the disaster tourists," said Rex Norman, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. "They're people who seem to have driven long distances to look at burned houses, which is extraordinarily difficult for the affected residents."

Dave Martinez and Kimberly Holloway drove for more than an hour down from the lake's north shore to take in the spectacle. In the Gardner Mountain section of South Lake Tahoe this week, the couple walked up to the charred line separating the homes from the burned forest and took photographs of the firefighters.

"I travel to a lot of these things," said Martinez, a retired contractor. "But this is the first big one for her," he added, pointing to Holloway.

"I watched them all day (Tuesday), and look at the job they did," he said. "That's where the fire came to, and there are the houses. These guys deserve a lot of thanks."

He and Holloway passed out some bottled water and pretzels (the day before, they brought Snickers bars) and then took video and photos of the fire team. The firefighters, part of a crew of convicts, shouted out their hometowns as Martinez filmed them.

Sheriff's officials who have been working neighborhood checkpoints say they have run into out-of-towners trying to sneak into burned areas. A volunteer at one checkpoint told The Chronicle that carloads of gawkers have pretended to be news reporters in hopes of getting in to see the destruction. They were turned away.

The post-calamity gathering of outsiders isn't unique to South Lake Tahoe. It happened after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Oakland hills fire in 1991, and the Loma Prieta quake in 1989.

Some cities have embraced disaster tourists. In New Orleans, they're called "voluntourists." Visitors can tour flood-ravaged areas in large buses and then volunteer to build homes. After Sept. 11, 2001, a viewing deck was built so people could watch the cleanup of the World Trade Center in New York City.

James Kendra, coordinator of the Emergency Administration and Planning Program at the University of North Texas, calls the social phenomenon "disaster convergence." Those who converge on a disaster scene usually include people who want to help, people who are concerned about family and friends, and those who are simply curious, he said.

El Dorado County Sheriff's Deputy Phil Chovanec said some nonresidents have been arrested for wandering into fire zones this week.

"We're getting a lot of people from outside the area coming here simply to look and see what's happening," he said. "We're asking people to please respect the privacy of people who live here."

Onlookers congregated in the streets of the Gardner Mountain neighborhood Sunday evening and on Tuesday just before the mandatory evacuation, said Mike Lee, who owns a midnight-blue, two-story home on 13th Street.

Lee, a former firefighter who runs a landscaping business, said he tried to tell those who stopped their cars on the street to clear the way for fire trucks and other equipment.

They resisted. One person screamed at him, he said. A carful of young men spun their tires in the loose gravel in front of his house, he said.

"They just wanted to stop, stare and lie," Lee said. "I'd ask if they lived in this neighborhood, but they couldn't tell me which street."

Even as Lee described the scene on Wednesday afternoon, cars sporting out-of-state license plates cruised down his block with their windows down.

Just behind the property lines, teams of firefighters sprayed hot spots and chopped down "candlestick" trees -- crownless trunks with smoke rising from them.

The spectators might not realize that they pose potential risks to themselves and firefighters, authorities said.

Even after a fire has burned through an area, there are myriad dangers -- including flammable gas cans, live electrical wires and stump holes smoldering beneath the ground. These can be risky spots for firefighters, let alone people with no fire safety training.

"People think it's fun to see the tanker drops from the side of the road," said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "But they don't realize they're blocking a hydrant or near a hotspot. Common sense says you should just stay away."

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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