Perfect storm of conditions fueled big Reno fire

AP News
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Posted: Nov 21, 2011 7:46 PM
Perfect storm of conditions fueled big Reno fire

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 obstacles firefighters faced 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 30 homes and damaged another dozen _ and forced nearly 10,000 people to evacuate _ before crews had it fully contained Sunday.

"Today, it is literally the day after the storm ... what I call a firestorm," Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said Monday about the blaze that at one point was spreading at 20 to 30 mph.

"This was not a typical wildfire incident," he said. "The fire was exhibiting extremely erratic fire behavior _ not a typical wildfire where you can actually see a fire come down a mountain."

"Between the wind, accessibility, the rugged terrain _ it just proved to be an incredible challenge," he said.

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.

In some cases, the flames seemed to appear out of nowhere.

"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."

Hernandez said the cost of fighting the fire is approaching $700,000 "and that number will increase." He said property damage loss will be in the multi-millions but couldn't be more specific.

"The total cost of this even will be significant," he said Monday.

Former state archivist Guy Rocha said the fire likely will go down as the largest "urban" wildfire in Reno's history, burning 1,946 acres with an estimated 30 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.

Hernandez dismissed suggestions Monday that the response to the fire was slowed because of the closure of a fire substation in the area within the past year or so due to city budget cuts.

"This fire quickly grew. It was an erratic fire. Whether that station was staffed or not would not have had an impact on the overall outcome of the fire," he said.

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 _ 4,000 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.