Perfect storm of conditions fueled big Reno fire

November 21, 2011 - 6:35 PM
Reno Fire

Austin Hardage, 23, left, returns, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2011 to the charred rubble that used to be the home where he and his wife, Sarah Hardage, 22, lived in an upscale community in the Sierra foothills in southwest Reno, Nev. before a wildfire destroyed that home and 31 others early Friday.(AP Photo/Scott Sonner)

RENO, Nev. (AP) — One of the worst fires in state history was a nearly perfect storm of unfortunate luck and unfavorable circumstances and conditions.

Ferocious winds, power outages, rocky canyons and gated communities were just some of the things firefighters found themselves up against in the middle of a cold November night battling the kind of blaze more typical of a sweltering August afternoon.

"I don't think anybody ever anticipated we'd have an incident like this at this point in the year," Gov. Brian Sandoval said after a weekend helicopter tour of the area.

The southwest Reno blaze was first reported at 12:22 a.m. Friday. It destroyed about 30 homes and seriously damaged another half-dozen — and forced nearly 10,000 people to evacuate — before crews had it fully contained Sunday.

"Between the wind, accessibility, the rugged terrain — it just proved to be an incredible challenge," Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said. "The fire at times spread at 20 to 30 miles per hour."

With winds gusting in excess of 70 mph, flames up to 100 feet tall snaked through narrow canyons and ravines over nearly 2,000 acres.

"This fire was out of control the second it started," Reno Mayor Bob Cashell said.

As the fire approached one residential area, airborne embers blew into other neighborhoods more than a mile away, forcing fire crews to scramble from one cul-de-sac to another.

That made for unusual fire behavior with flames seemingly appearing out of nowhere in some cases.

"I could see flames up over our roof, and I couldn't understand what it was burning," said Dick Hecht, who along with his wife fled their southwest Reno home at about 1:30 a.m.

"There are no big trees there or anything. It's an open, common area. So I didn't know how that could happen, but I wasn't going to stand around and figure it out."

The challenge to firefighters was compounded by the fact they faced two distinct missions requiring different strategies and tactics — the first, slowing the advance of the wild land fire and second, putting out structure fires.

"It was a lot more complex than normal," said Mark Regan, spokesman for the Sierra Fire Protection District. "It wasn't just one location. It was everywhere. They moved resources around as fast as they could, but some of those houses were two miles apart."

Former state archivist Guy Rocha said the fire likely will go down as the largest "urban" wild land fire in Reno's history, burning 1,953 acres with an estimated 29 homes destroyed. Carson City's Waterfall in 2004 fire burned 8,799 acres but destroyed only 21 homes.

Twelve people were killed in the Mizpah Hotel fire in downtown Reno in 2006, the city's deadliest. Nevada's deadliest fire was in 1980 at the MGM hotel-casino in Las Vegas, which killed 87 people and injured 679.

Only one death was attributed to last week's fire in Reno — a 74-year-old man who went into cardiac arrest while carrying items to evacuate.

Sandoval said the loss of homes in the Reno fire was tragic but that it could have been much worse had it not been for the help provided fire departments across Nevada and in neighboring California.

"Think about it — 400 homes saved by a little over 400 firefighters," the governor said.

"We had firefighters all the way from Tonopah, Winnemucca, Carlin, Storey County, Douglas County, Carson City," Sandoval said. "I saw firefighters from South Lake Tahoe and Placerville (Calif.)

"They all came together for a miracle — truly a miracle in terms of what they were able to preserve and save."

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Associated Press writers Cristina Silva in Las Vegas and Josh Loftin in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.