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As the Caldor fire rages on, Echo Lake’s beloved cottage faces danger

Few places are more beloved or secret on the road to Tahoe than Echo Lake. A land exit off the highway takes the intrepid and connoisseur through a winding forest path that descends to a pristine alpine hideaway anchored by a dock and general store.

For generations, the Chalet – as the store is known – has served as a hub for a tight-knit community that has owned cabins here for over a century.

Cabins are rarely sold and cannot be rented. Most are accessible only by boat, with the Chalet operating a water taxi for visitors and hikers. There is no electricity for the most part, and no running water, but the lucky few who have access to the cabins speak reverently of their wild splendor.

Monday evening, a fire ravaged the neighborhood. With flames leaping through the pine tops, the hell became so intense that firefighters had to withdraw, according to Caldor firefighters spokesman Dave Lauchner.

As of Tuesday morning, the trees were still on fire and one flank of the blaze moved largely unchecked through Desolation Wilderness as dozens of firefighters battled to protect structures, including the camp in nearby Berkeley.

But there were no resources to spare for the cabins on the lake, which are not accessible by road.

He was left with two men to save Echo: Loren Sperber and Josh Birnbaum.

Both men grew up here and can name the owners of almost any cabin. Sperber is a fire captain on leave. Birnbaum is a retired fire captain from Santa Cruz. Both worked at the Chalet when they were children.

Two nights ago they entered alone and took a boat to the huts, defending them with everything they had: shovels, rakes, saws.

So far, Sperber said on Tuesday afternoon, none of the cabins surrounding the lake had been lost. However, the fire still threatened them.

The men left on Tuesday, dirty, tired and determined.

“We have seen much more intense and threatening situations,” Sperber said of his time as a firefighter. “But the fact that this is the most special place for many of us makes it unreal.”

Birnbaum shook his head. “Surreal,” he said, looking at the water, its surface shrouded in smoke.