POSTED: 2:25 a.m. HST, Jan 20, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 5:00 a.m. HST, Jan 20, 2012
RENO, Nev. » Firefighters worked to hold the line Friday on a fast-moving brush fire that tore through the Reno area, destroying at least 20 houses and forcing thousands of residents to flee.
The blaze started shortly after noon Thursday and, fueled by wind gusts reaching 82 mph, mushroomed to more than 6 square miles in size before firefighters stopped its surge toward Reno. The fire is holding steady at about 3,700 acres and was 50 percent contained, spokesman Mark Regan of the Sierra Fire Protection District said Friday.
More than 10,000 people were told to leave their homes during the height of the blaze, and about 2,000 of them remained under evacuation orders.
At least 700 people were expected to fight the blaze Friday, including law enforcement, crews from the National Guard and firefighters from California.
Winds were gusty Friday and a light mist in the air wasn't doing much to help firefighters. But they counted on precipitation later in the day to douse the flames.
Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said 20 homes were destroyed but a full assessment might reveal even more damage. There was one fatality in the fire area, Hernandez said, but he declined to provide more details, saying an autopsy would be needed to determine the cause of death.
The blaze was "almost a carbon copy" of a huge wild fire on the edge of the Sierra foothills that destroyed 30 homes in southwest Reno in November, the fire chief said. It burned about 3 square miles and also forced the evacuation of 10,000 people.
"It's inconceivable that this community has been struck by tragedy again," said Gov. Brian Sandoval, who declared a state of emergency Thursday afternoon.
Wet weather was forecast Friday, and snow was forecast Friday night. But high winds were expected to continue, with gusts up to 40 mph.
The fire, of unknown origin, broke out in a valley along U.S. Highway 395. By nightfall, the fire had burned to the city's southern outskirts. Flames were visible from the downtown casino district, about 10 miles away.
The flames, up to 40 feet high, raced through sage brush, grass and pines in an area where small neighborhoods are dispersed among an otherwise rural landscape.
"The area burned is absolutely devastated," Washoe County Sheriff Mike Haley said.
About 300 elementary school students were taken to an evacuation center, and deputies went door to door asking people to leave their homes in Pleasant Valley, Old Washoe Valley and Saint James Village, Washoe County sheriff's Deputy Armando Avina said.
Erika Minnberry, 28, said she didn't become concerned at first because smoke from the fire appeared far enough away.
"Probably 30 minutes later, it was up to our house because of the high winds," she said. "I felt pure survival adrenaline. When we drove away, the smoke was so thick, we could barely see ahead of us. Now I feel anxiety. I couldn't find my two cats at the time and I hope they're OK."
The wind died down after nightfall and rain started falling, much to the delight of fire crews who stopped the flames' forward progress at Galena High School, where Vice President Joe Biden had been speaking just a few hours earlier.
The strong winds coming across the Sierra ahead of a winter storm had already delayed Biden's visit to the school on the south end of town.
With the smell of smoke in the air, Biden was about 25 minutes into his address when aides summoned him off stage. He told the audience he would have to move onto a question-and-answer period before officials "made me get out of here."
Hernandez later held a briefing at the high school, but it was evacuated along with surrounding neighborhoods shortly afterward.
With zero containment, firefighters were concentrating on using crews and trucks to protect homes in the path of the flames, Hernandez said earlier Thursday.
He estimated firefighters had saved about 1,000 structures.
"To say we are in the thick of battle is an understatement," he told reporters.
As with the November fire, which was sparked by downed power lines, strong winds and dry conditions helped fuel the latest blaze. The Reno area had gone a winter-record 56 days without any precipitation until light snow fell earlier this week.
Washoe County animal services officials helped round up horses and other livestock for evacuation.
Part of U.S. 395 was closed as heavy smoke reduced visibility to zero, and an 11-mile stretch of the highway would remain closed indefinitely, Hernandez said.
About 2,300 homes in the area were without power Thursday night.
Thomas Young, 48, a freelance writer, said he had just gotten out of the shower at his Pleasant Valley home when the power went out. Draped in only a towel, he looked out a window and saw his barn on fire and flames up to his backyard.
"Right away the flames went up a power line, and I said, 'We have to get out of here,'" Young said. "We put two dogs and two kids in the car and drove away about three minutes later. Unfortunately, I think my house is burned down from what I saw."
Associated Press writers Michelle Rindels in Las Vegas, Martin Griffith in Reno and Sandra Chereb in Carson City contributed to this report.