Crews contain fatal Reno fire that destroyed 29 homes and killed a 93-year-old woman
RENO, Nev. — As rain helped crews surround a brush fire that destroyed 29 homes and forced thousands to flee, the family of the blaze's only known fatality said Saturday that prosecuting the man who admitted to starting it wouldn't "do any good."
June Hargis, 93, was found dead in a studio apartment next to her daughter's home in Washoe Valley, where the fire started Thursday. Sheriff Mike Haley said her cause of death has not been established, so it's not known if it was fire related. No other fatalities or major injuries were reported.
Fire officials say an "extremely remorseful" elderly man admitted Friday to accidentally starting the fire when he improperly discarded fireplace ashes outside his home in the valley's north end.
Hargis's son, Jim Blueberg, 68, told The Associated Press that he didn't think filing criminal charges against the elderly man "would do any good."
"The man had the courage to come up and say he did this. He's remorseful. I think he's punished himself enough. It was a silly, stupid mistake to make, there's no doubt about that. But I just want him to know I forgive him, and my heart goes out to him," he said.
His sister, Jeannie Watts, 70, had returned home from an errand to find the apartment next door and a barn with three horses inside engulfed in flames. She agreed that there was probably no need to file charges against the man.
"What good is that going to do? Everything is already gone," Watts said.
"He'll pay the rest of his life for that," she added.
The fire, which grew to more than 6 square miles, burned through sagebrush, pastures and pines in a rural area with scattered small neighborhoods south of Reno.
Gov. Brian Sandoval, who toured the area Friday, said "there is nothing left in some of those places except for the chimneys and fireplaces."
Fire officials declared the blaze contained Saturday after a storm brought precipitation that the region hasn't seen in months. All evacuations were lifted and U.S. 395 reopened through the 3,200-acre fire zone.
But in addition to two inches of rain, the storm also brought another challenge for emergency workers. Officials fear its potential for causing flooding in burned areas, after one of the driest winters in Reno history.
"I'm confident we'll be able to respond successfully if necessary," Washoe County Manager Katy Simon said, adding that hydrologists and officials were monitoring the situation.
Fire officials have said the blaze was "almost a carbon copy" of a blaze that destroyed 30 homes in Reno during similar summer-like conditions in mid-November. It moved quickly, fueled by strong wind gusts that sent flames as high as 40 feet.
Watts said it took only about 15 minutes for her three-bedroom farmhouse to burn down, though the fire reached her mother's apartment and the barn first. She said her mother appeared to be mentally alert when she last saw her.
"Before I got home, my son told her, 'Get your stuff and get out of here,'" Watts told the AP. "She said to him, 'Well, I can smell smoke but I can't see any fire,' and she went back inside. She probably suffocated from the smoke because it was so thick."
She said that when she got home, she shouted: "Where's my mom? Where's my mom?"
"The firefighters didn't know," she said. "Later, an official came to me and said, 'Yes, she was in (the burned studio).' Then they called the coroner. I was just crying and screaming. I still can't believe it."
Blueberg said the death of their mother comes after his sister had been through "one hard knock after another" in recent years.
The fire left her financially strapped, with virtually no earthly possessions, he said. "She told me the other day, 'All I have is my purse, that's all I have,'" he said.
She and her husband, Pat, met with an insurance agent on the property. In addition to the destroyed buildings, three horses in her barn died, though firefighters rescued all five dogs from her home.
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