Arcing power lines caused big Nov. 18 fire in Nev.

January 28, 2012 - 12:05 AM

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Fire investigators have confirmed arcing power lines caused the wind-blown blaze that destroyed dozens of homes in Reno in November.

The brush fire caused about $7.6 million in property damage and more than $1.5 million in firefighting costs, according to a report issued Friday by the Reno Fire Department. It destroyed 26 homes and damaged 17.

Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said earlier he suspected power lines sparked the Nov. 18 fire, but he stopped short of ruling that the formal cause.

The report says a tree branch probably was blown into lines, and an electrical engineer from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms concurred in the department's findings. The fire was fanned by gusts of up to 85 mph, and charred 1,935 acres.

"The fire was pretty much an act of nature," Fire Marshal Joan Presley told The Associated Press.

Another 29 homes burned south of Reno last week in a wind-whipped fire started accidentally by a man discarding fireplace ashes during the area's driest winter in more than 120 years. Prosecutors are considering whether to file charges against him.

While the report didn't make recommendations or assign any blame for the earlier blaze, Presley said underground power lines would have prevented it. She declined to comment on whether NV Energy should be required to install underground lines in such urban-wildland areas.

"I don't have a requirement or regulation to ask NV Energy to do that now," Presley said.

NV Energy spokeswoman Faye Anderson said the utility had not yet seen the fire department report.

"However, we look forward to reviewing their findings and incorporating them into our own investigation, which is still ongoing," she said. "We continue to examine all variables, including weather."

A man who was camping near the fire's origin above the Caughlin Ranch subdivision provided key details, according to the report.

Charles Palmer was in his sleeping bag when he was awakened by a loud noise that he thought was a big branch slamming into a power pole. From his bag about 100 yards away, he watched as the fire began under the lines and quickly spread.

He later returned to the scene with fire investigators, the report says, and "the physical evidence supported his story."

"It was unusual to have someone up there, and to be able to corroborate everything he said," Presley said. "We usually don't have eyewitnesses like that."

It also was unusual that video surveillance cameras of three Reno hotel-casinos captured the start of the blaze, she added. Among other things, the video showed a blue and white flash on the mountainside just before the fire and a power outage afterward.