The raging wildfire was pushed by high winds Thursday and raced across a tinder-dry landscape south of Reno, destroying homes and other buildings as firefighters raced to save property in harm’s way.
For the second time in two months, 82-mph winds from an approaching storm fanned an explosive fire, this one forcing the closure of U.S. 395 south of Reno and prompting Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval to declare a state of emergency in response to the rare winter blaze. The declaration paves the way for federal assistance.
The Washoe Drive Fire burned more than 3,700 acres and was zero percent contained Thursday night, with nearly 350 firefighters converging to fight a fire that started in north Washoe Valley about 12:45 p.m. PST and, pushed by south winds gusting in excess of 80 mph, quickly raced north through Pleasant Valley toward Galena.
“I tell you what, it was a disaster,” Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said. “This fire was totally wind-driven. It went through some subdivisions, and unfortunately, some structures were lost.”
Hernandez said the two wintertime blazes that have done so much damage in northern Nevada since late November were because of high winds and extremely dry vegetation ready to explode with a spark.
“The fuels out there are at their driest point ever,” the chief said.
Hernandez could not say how many homes or other structures were destroyed but said “there probably were at least a dozen, and unfortunately, there probably are more.” More information is expected Friday.
Homes burned in both the Washoe City and Pleasant Valley areas. About 10,000 people were evacuated from the fire area, some barely escaping their neighborhoods ahead of the flames. About 2,300 NV Energy customers were without electricity as of about 8 p.m. Thursday.
The fire, which split into two sections and prompted a county state of emergency, also cut short an appearance at a local high school by Vice President Joe Biden.
The fire came two months after another wind-fanned blaze erupted in the hills of southwest Reno, destroying 30 homes and damaging many others. That fire was suspected to have been sparked by power lines downed by wind.
Pleasant Valley resident Joey Fontana evacuated his home of more than 35 years as the fire approached from the south. Earlier, he had rushed to an elementary school to pick up his two grandchildren, only to learn that they and 300 other students had already been evacuated.
“I’ve got what’s in the truck, and that’s it. I’m leaving now,” said Fontana, 70. “I can’t tell where the fire is at. There’s just so much ash and smoke.”
With his daughter crying at his side, Larry Kaplan hosed down a fence at his house near the top of Washoe Hill. He had already lost two homes to fire, one a wildfire and the other an electrical blaze.
“I’m not going to lose my house a third time. I can’t go through this again,” said Kaplan, 45. “The fire is all around us; it’s on every side of our house.”
On Thursday evening, the Kaplan home was still standing without serious damage.
Firefighters said they saved about 1,000 structures.
With a neighbor’s house fully engulfted in flame, George Gubler battled with firefighters to save his home, face blackened with soot. The residence survived but an outbuilding burned along with some antique cars — a loss he placed at about $200,000.
“I fought it with everything I had,” Gubler said.
Horses and other livestock were evacuated to the Reno Livestock Events Center.
“We’re hauling out everything we can,” Washoe County Regional Animal Services Sgt. Cindy Doak said as she and colleagues gathered a frightened horse from its corral in Pleasant Valley.
As darkness fell and winds began to diminish, the fire nevertheless made an aggressive run to the north toward Galena. Authorities evacuated Galena High School at 5 p.m. while residents in nearby neighborhoods gathered belongings and fled the area at the urging of police going door to door.
“It looked like it died for about an hour, and then boom, it blew up again,” said Eric Dale as he prepared to leave his home. He was confident firefighters would keep the blaze out of his suburban neighborhood.
“It should be fine. Hopefully, it will be OK,” Dale said as the nighttime sky was lit with orange to the south.
The source article Wildfire rages near Reno; 10,000 evacuated was published January 20, 2012 by USA Today .