A year ago July 16, a plume of smoke rose above the High Sierra as a single tree fire expected to burn itself out instead exploded into flame and raged down on Markleeville, eventually claiming 68,696 acres of land and claiming 25 structures.
Likely set by a July 3 lightning storm in a patch of isolated vegetation on a ridge above Pleasant Valley Creek, the fire burned for nearly two weeks a half-dozen miles southwest of Markleeville before the wind caught it and sent it down the canyon toward the historic Alpine County town on July 16, 2021.
The sudden intensity of the blaze caught everyone unaware, though there were hints that Friday afternoon.
A health advisory was issued by Alpine County Health Officer Richard Johnson issued an advisory regarding smoke and the Death Ride, observing that at 2 p.m. smoke from the fires was clearly visible over Markleeville, Monitor and Ebbetts passes.
“The fires include the Henry Fire, which is now reported to be greater than 2,000 acres, and a smaller fire burning in the Pleasant Valley area,” he said. That fire wouldn’t stay smaller for long.
When the plume first arose around 4 p.m. on July 16, downslope winds were already pushing the Tamarack down Pleasant Valley, and over the ridges into Spratt, Musser and Jarvis and Hot Springs creeks toward Markleeville.
Not long after the fire took off that Friday afternoon, an East Fork battalion chief was stopped along Fredericksburg Road at Highway 88 looking south toward the plume in an attempt to gauge the severity and location of the fire.
The size of the plume gave residents across Carson Valley the impression that it was much closer than it was prompting residents to call 911 to report the fire was in their neighborhoods.
Wind patterns caused the smoke to rise above the Sierra and then curl around the Pine Nuts, contributing to the confusion about its location.
Firefighters battled to save Markleeville as the fire bore down on the historic mountain town. Within hours of the plume appearing in the mountains, Markleeville and the surrounding region was being evacuated.
At the end of the day on July 17, only 120 firefighters were trying to stop a fire that had grown from 500 to more than 21,000 acres in less than 24 hours.
The fire forced both the incident command and the evacuation center to move from Woodfords to Carson Valley. By the morning of July 18, reinforcements were gathering at Douglas High School, while evacuees were at the Douglas County Community & Senior Center.
Fire maps from the time tell the story of how those few firefighters were able to save the historic town as the fire split into two fronts, one burning north of town that threatened Woodfords and the Washoe community of Hung A Lel Ti.
The fire was expanding so quickly that official sources weren’t able to keep up with its growth. With no containment, the only means to track the size of the fire was to use federal fire web sites that allowed measurement of the acreage.
Heavy smoke prevented firefighting aircraft from helping to douse the blaze, with visibilities dropping below three miles at times.
On July 20, Douglas County issued an alert that residents living near the Nevada state line, including, the Highway 395 corridor through the Pine Nuts, Fredericksburg and Sheridan Acres should be prepared to leave their homes.
The fire burned across the state line into Douglas overnight on July 20 as Douglas County Sheriff’s deputies and Search and Rescue Team members went door to door to advise residents living near Leviathan Mine Road and Holbrook Junction of the danger.
The morning of July 21 dawned in relative quiet after the excitement of the previous evening. A good-sized smoke plume was visible above Double Spring Flat, but Highway 395 was still open to Holbrook.
The following evening, on July 21, roughly 1,200 Topaz Ranch Estates residents were advised the fire was headed their way and Highway 395 was closed. Things would deteriorate rapidly as the day saw the first flames visible on the ridge over Double Spring Flat through the smoke that afternoon.
There was a glimmer of hope on the morning of July 22. Motorists were being escorted along an otherwise closed Highway 395 between Holbrook and Bodie Flat around lunchtime only to be shut down two hours later.
Topaz Ranch Estates photographer John Flaherty climbed the hill behind his house on the morning of July 22 and took photos of the fire burning above the rest area north of Holbrook.
In those photos, it was apparent the fire was progressing toward TRE and was already spotting east of the highway in places. By 4 p.m., spotters in aircraft estimated the fire on the east side of Highway 395 had grown to 2,500 acres and was well established on the ridge northwest of Topaz Ranch Estates.
An additional 1,369 people were evacuated primarily from the Highway 395 corridor, bringing the total number of those evacuated to 2,439.
Douglas County commissioners issued a state of emergency on July 23.
The fire’s arrival in the lighter Pine Nut Mountain vegetation combined with calmer weather allowed firefighters to finally get ahead of the blaze. By July 24, Douglas County started sending crews south to check the damage. The next day the evacuation orders were lifted and Highway 395 reopened.
It will be decades before the scars from the Tamarack Fire begin to heal.
A year later, recovery from the Tamarack Fire is still ongoing, with claims for the lost property winding their way through the federal bureaucracy in a process that could take years. Efforts to restore the burned region will be underway for much longer.
Editor’s Note: Much of this story was excerpted from the Carson Valley Almanac with updates throughout.