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Lake Tahoe hopeful for a tourism comeback

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Fire and ice haven't been kind to the fabled Lake Tahoe resort region this year.

An unusually dry winter kept ski resorts short of snow. Wildfires destroyed more than 200 homes and other buildings just before Independence Day celebrations, which traditionally draw up to 100,000 people.

Bookings for the holiday were down 10-15 percent, but Patrick Kaler, executive director of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, was hopeful the fire's effects would be shortlived.

"Really, the majority of the summer season starts after the Fourth of July. I'm sure that we can bounce back pretty quickly," Kaler said.

Big, blue, and beloved by Californians and people from all over the world, Lake Tahoe is 22 miles long and reaches 1,600 feet at its deepest point. One side is in Nevada, with its bright lights and casinos, and the other is in California with the quieter charms of century-old estates and funky family resorts.

"We need everybody to know that Lake Tahoe is open for all tourism activities: recreation, boating, gaming, entertainment, dining and lodging and that it's completely safe," said Phil Weidinger, a spokesman for the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority.

For Lisa and Mark Rothstein, the fire did not disrupt their family reunion, which had been planned for months.

"It didn't deter us. We watched the news every day and saw that the fires weren't coming any closer. We were hoping they'd be contained sooner, but it hasn't affected our vacation," said Lisa Rothstein outside Harrah's Casino on the lake's south shore a few days before the fire was declared contained on July 2.

The fire burned on the southern end of the California side, ravaging everything from vacation palaces to middle-class dwellings to ramshackle hideaways. At times, twisting, blustery winds threatened to carry the fire toward popular tourist destinations strung along the lake's southern edge, forcing hundreds to evacuate.

As the fires raged, ash fell like black snow on Tahoe's waters. But firefighters gained ground as winds dropped.

Because Lake Tahoe is so large there won't be any immediate changes in water quality, said Jeff Cowen, community liaison for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, a Nevada-California entity charged with protecting the lake.

But the cumulative effects of fire runoff carried into the lake by streams over the coming months is a concern because it includes nutrients that feed algae growth, which can turn the water from its signature clear blue to green, he said.

The lake has been losing clarity at a rate of about a foot a year for 30 years, to a current underwater visibility of 70 feet. It's a trend officials have been trying to reverse in recent years. The planning agency will be working with the U.S. Geological Service and the federal forest service to monitor streams and establish erosion control and reforestation.

The bumpy start to summer comes after a winter which, according to the annual May 1 snow survey, ended with a snowpack that was just 29 percent of normal.

The surrounding Sierra Nevada is home to about a dozen ski resorts, including world-class destinations like Squaw Valley USA and the Heavenly Ski Resort.

Revenue totals are still being compiled, but "we do know that we did take somewhat of a hit this year on the lack of snow," said Kaler.

The fire may not put a significant dent in the overall economy because it likely will prompt a flurry of rebuilding, said Cynthia Kroll, a senior regional economist at the University of California, Berkeley's, Haas School of Business.

"Once the fire is out, unless a really major area has been taken out, the local business recovers pretty quickly and, in fact, there's often an infusion of new dollars from the rebuilding," she said.

Kaler said ad campaigns are planned to get the message out that South Lake Tahoe is open for business. And areas on the lake's north shore have already sent out notices that roads are open and the usual summer events are still on — including the American Century Championship, an annual celebrity golf tournament that ran through July 15. This year, the tournament will donate $25,000 to the Sierra Nevada chapter of the American Red Cross, and Raley's, a regional supermarket chain, will match that amount, to support relief efforts related to the fire.