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Homes Destroyed, Thousands Evacuated In Wind-Whipped Reno Fire

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A wildfire in Reno, Nevada forced 10,000 people from their homes on November 18, 2011. (CBS)

A wildfire in Reno, Nevada forced 10,000 people from their homes on November 18, 2011. (CBS)

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RENO, Nev. (CBS / AP) – A cloud of grayish-white smoke settled over upscale homes and horse pastures at Reno’s edge Friday as firefighters came close to taming a sudden wildfire that sent 16 people to hospitals and destroyed or damaged 25 houses.

The unexplained blaze also gave a firefighter first- and second-degree burns and was blamed for the death of a 74-year-old man who had a heart attack while trying to flee, but authorities said the worst was likely over as growing snow flurries and falling temperatures stoked hopes that the remaining showers of ember and ash would die down.

Reno Fire Chief Mike Hernandez said firefighters had largely contained the blaze that sent nearly 10,000 people from their homes in the middle of the night and sent flames licking the edges of the region’s mountain roads.

“We are actually backtracking and going over areas that have burned and extinguishing hot spots,” Hernandez said.

Fire officials at an evening news conference didn’t declare victory over the blaze.

“The threat to homes is still there,” said fire spokesman Mike Regan. “There is still a lot of hot embers and dry fuel out there.”

The cause of the blaze wasn’t known, but a downed power line or homeless encampments in the area might be to blame, Hernandez said. He said the region is also a popular area for teenagers who might have started the fire to stay warm.

At least 400 firefighters from as far as 260 miles away flocked to Reno early Friday as multiple fires roared from the Sierra Nevada foothills in northwestern Nevada and spread to the valley floor. Flames reached 50 feet high and embers pushed by the wind traveled up to a mile.

Firefighters from Northern California are helping battle the fire. The California Emergency Management Agency has sent 50 fire fighters from Grass Valley, Auburn and Nevada City along with five fire truck and one water tender to Reno.

Police went house-to-house, pounding on doors and urging residents to evacuate in the dark of the night.

Hernandez said residents ran from their homes dressed in pajamas, frantically trying to grab as many possessions as possible. One elderly man dressed in his underwear ran out with a blanket wrapped around his body.

“The people are in a state of shock and are hanging in there,” Gov. Brian Sandoval said.

Dick Hecht said that when he escaped from his home with his wife, “the whole mountain was on fire,” and it was so windy he could barely stand.

“It was so smoky, you couldn’t hardly see,” Hecht said.

The couple tried to return to their home before morning, but they were turned back by high winds and erupting flames. As they made their way back down the mountain roads, flames burned less than 40 yards from their vehicle.

Gusts of up to 60 mph grounded firefighting helicopters and made it difficult for firefighters to approach Caughlin Ranch, the affluent subdivision bordering pine-forested hills where the fire likely began after 12:30 a.m.

The strong winds, combined with the area’s dry terrain, helped the fire spread from 400 acres to 2,000, or more than 3 square miles. Firefighters said their efforts spared 4,000 homes but that the disaster would likely cost many millions of dollars.

The gusts were comparable to the Santa Ana winds that often aggravate and spread wildfires in the hills surrounding Los Angeles, officials said.

“The wind is horrific,” said Reno spokeswoman Michele Anderson. “We just watched a semi nearly blow over on the freeway.”

More than 150 people had filled two shelters set up at area high schools by midmorning.

John and Maggie Givlin were among those watching a television at Reno High School, scanning the screen for details on whether the home they left behind was safe. They already were preparing to flee when a police officer knocked on their door at 1:30 a.m.

“I smelled smoke and got out of bed, and the electricity was out,” said John Givlin, a retired civil engineer who has lived there about eight years. “I looked out the front window and saw the glow over the hill before us.”

He and his wife made their way out of their home with a flashlight. Outside, flames billowed in every direction.

More than 4,000 NV Energy customers lost power as poles and electrical wires were scorched and knocked down, said spokeswoman Faye Andersen. Utility workers were not allowed into the fire area.

More than 100 police officers and National Guard members were patrolling streets in the fire area to protect homes from vandals, Assistant Police Chief Mike Whan said.

“These next 24 hours, with all the power lines down and everything else, it is still a very, very dangerous area,” Reno Mayor Bob Cashell said.

Evacuees could return to their homes at noon Saturday, Cashell said. A number of local hotel-casinos were also offering discounted rooms to displaced residents.

At least 90 schools were closed for the day to clear the roads of school traffic and make way for emergency workers.

The U.S. Postal Service suspended delivery to the area for the day, and the state high school athletic association moved its football playoffs from Friday night to Monday.

Most of the 16 people who went to hospitals were treated for smoke inhalation. Health officials urged residents to stay inside and reduce physical activity, warning that the dust and smoke could cause health problems for those in the affected regions and downwind neighborhoods.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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