4,000 evacuated as brush fire burns toward Reno

By Scott Sonner

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 19 2012 6:45 p.m. MST

Firefighters battle a fast-moving brush fire in Pleasant Valley, south of Reno, Nev., on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. Winds gusting up to 82 mph pushed a fast-moving brush fire through a valley south of Reno on Thursday, burning several homes, threatening dozens more and forcing hundreds of residents to evacuate their neighborhoods.

Cathleen Allison, Associated Press

RENO, Nev. — Winds gusting up to 82 mph pushed a fast-moving brush fire south of Reno out of control on Thursday as it burned several homes, threatened dozens more and forced more than 4,000 people to evacuate their neighborhoods.

Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said more than 230 firefighters were battling the blaze that had grown to nearly 5 square miles about four hours after it started.

Hernandez confirmed homes had been destroyed. He said he didn't know how many but told reporters "the news is not good."

There were no immediate reports of any deaths or injuries.

A Reno television station reported at least 10 homes had burned since the fire broke out about 12:45 p.m. along U.S. Highway 395 about 10 miles south of Reno. The blaze was burning about 15 miles from the downtown Reno casino district and within about five miles of the southern city limits.

Gov. Brian Sandoval declared a state of emergency.

A five-mile stretch of U.S. 395 was closed as the strong winds pushed the flames north toward Reno along the base of the hillsides, Washoe County sheriff's Deputy Armando Avina said. Heavy smoke reduced visibility to zero.

"It's moving at a very fast rate," Avina said. "The winds are extremely powerful in this area."

Deputies were going door to door asking people to leave their homes in Pleasant Valley, Old Washoe Valley and Saint James Village, Avina said. They evacuated about 300 students from Pleasant Valley Elementary School.

Ten homes had burned — a half dozen of them in the Washoe Valley Estates neighborhood, KRNV-TV reported. The Reno Gazette-Journal reported explosions could be heard in the area.

Firefighters had zero containment of the blaze and were concentrating on using crews and trucks to protect homes in the path of the flames, Hernandez said.

He estimated firefighters had saved about 1,000 structures and said another 80 to 120 firefighters are expected to arrive on scene before midnight.

"To say we are in the thick of battle is an understatement," he told reporters.

The strong winds blowing over the Sierra ahead of a winter storm caused delays earlier Thursday in Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Reno, where he was two hours late to give a speech at Galena High School on the south end of town.

The air smelled of smoke at the school, which sits on the Mount Rose Highway leading to Lake Tahoe. Biden told the audience about 25 minutes into his speech that he was cutting his remarks short because of the fire.

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. Washoe County animal services officials were helping round up horses and other livestock for evacuation.

The American Red Cross opened an evacuation center at Damonte High School, where the children from the elementary school were taken.

Trooper Dan Lopez said U.S. 395 was closed from the south end of Reno at Mount Rose Highway, or state Route 431, to the north end of Washoe Valley near the Bowers Mansion. Northbound traffic was being rerouted back to Carson City about 15 miles to the south.

Winds gusts of up to 82 mph were reported within a few miles of the fire, and a gust of 122 mph was recorded atop Slide Mountain, which is between the fire and Reno at the Mount Rose ski resort.

The conditions were similar to those Nov. 18, when a wind-driven fire destroyed 30 homes in southwest Reno.

National Weather Service forecasters were predicting the storm would bring rain to the area Thursday night before turning to snow Friday night. High winds were expected to continue, with gusts up to 40 mph.

Associated Press writer Sandra Chereb in Carson City contributed to this report.

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