Firefighters worked to hold the line Friday on a fast-moving brush fire that tore through the Reno area, destroyed 26 houses and forced thousands of residents to flee. The forecast of rain and snow would help douse the flames but also increase the chance of flooding on the charred land, authorities said.
The blaze started shortly after noon Thursday and, fueled by wind gusts reaching 82 mph, mushroomed to more than 6 square miles before firefighters stopped its surge toward Reno.
"The fire moved very, very fast," Washoe County Sheriff Mike Haley said Friday at a briefing. "Firefighters did an enormously good job of holding the number of structures down to 26."
The fire's cause isn't known. It started in a valley along U.S. Highway 395, which remained closed because the heat destroyed some of the guardrails that will need to be replaced, said Chris Perry, director, Department of Public Safety.
At one point, the flames got within 100 yards of Galena High School, where Vice President Joe Biden spoke earlier Thursday. Three nearby schools were closed Friday and about 200 customers were without electricity.
The fire held steady at about 3,900 acres and was 50 percent contained. 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.
By nightfall Thursday, the fire had burned to Reno's southern outskirts. Flames were visible from the downtown casino district, about 10 miles away.
Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said there was one fatality in the fire area but 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.
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," 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."
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."
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.