MEYERS, Calif. &

A forest fire near Lake Tahoe's south shore continued to rage today after destroying more than 275 homes and buildings, but firefighters said they made progress in slowing the blaze and were closer to identifying its cause.




The danger to homes diminished overnight after firefighters got a badly needed leg up on the inferno, which was still burning along rugged, uninhabited slopes. As of this morning, the blaze was about 40 percent contained, fire officials said.




Authorities said they planned to allow residents whose houses were only moderately damaged to return home today and hoped to begin escorting residents to destroyed homes by Thursday. The U.S. Forest Service and state fire agencies initially said they expected full containment of the blaze by Thursday &

but later changed that estimate to Sunday.




About 1,000 people have evacuated their homes and outbuildings while as many as 500 other houses remained threatened by the fire that has consumed 2,730 acres, authorities said. However, with the increasing success containing the fire, authorities said the threat against many of the homes has eased.




More than 1,000 residents packed a South Lake Tahoe middle school gymnasium Monday night and were told by fire officials that the blaze looks like it has stopped advancing. That said, authorities cautioned that strong winds forecast for later this week could fan the flames.




Federal and state investigators on Monday also isolated the fire's point of origin, said Kit Bailey, U.S Forest Service chief for the Lake Tahoe basin. The blaze began about 300 yards to 400 yards south of Seneca Pond, an area popular with runners and teenagers in the summer time.




The area has been cordoned off and investigators today will begin searching for what might have sparked the blaze. Bailey said there are no indications that the fire was set intentionally. Fire officials have presumed the fire was started by humans because there were no lightning strikes in the area on Sunday.




State officials declared a state of emergency, meaning California would cover all costs associated with fighting the fire.




The fire has produced a layer of black, mushy ash that has lapped boat docks in the lake, raising fears the fire also could have disastrous long-term economic consequences for a community heavily dependent on the lake's recreational tourism.




The National Weather Service issued a dense smoke advisory warning people from South Lake Tahoe to Carson City, Nev. that heavy ash was making it difficult to see and breathe.




The fire began Sunday afternoon on a ridge separating the resort community of South Lake Tahoe from Fallen Leaf Lake, a recreation area where a U.S. Forest Service campground was evacuated.




early this morning, 200 homes had been lost to flames and many others were damaged, along with dozens of outbuildings, authorities said. All that remained of entire neighborhoods in Meyers were the smoldering silhouettes of stone and concrete chimneys.




In other areas, the fire seemed to randomly skip some homes, but downed power lines, trees and debris made clear that life would not return to normal any time soon, even for those whose homes were spared.




The burned neighborhoods were a hodgepodge of million-dollar vacation homes, cabins and modest houses strung along the east side of the ridge. At least three members of the local fire department were believed to have lost their homes.




State and federal fire officials had warned of a potentially active wildfire season in the Sierra Nevada following an unusually dry winter. The annual May — snow survey found the Tahoe-area snowpack at just 29 percent of normal levels, the lowest since 1988.




Fire restrictions have been in effect in the Tahoe National Forest since June 11. The No. — cause of blazes in the area is abandoned campfires, according to the U.S. Forest Service.




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Associated Press Writers Brendan Riley and Amanda Fehd contributed to this report.