A trio of wind-whipped wildfires burning along the Sierra Nevada destroyed 22 homes north of Carson City, forced hundreds of evacuations at Lake Tahoe and temporarily closed a major highway connecting Reno to the mountain lake. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval declared a state of emergency as hundreds of firefighters battled the most dangerous fire, which is still threatening hundreds of structures in the Washoe Valley along Interstate 580 and US Highway 395 between Reno and Carson City.
No serious injuries have been reported but four firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation Friday, said Tia Rancourt, spokeswoman for the Sierra Front Interagency Fire Dispatch Center. The wildland blaze that continued to burn out of control Friday night has charred about 3 square miles of brush and timber. It forced the closures of numerous schools and roads, and triggered widespread power outages.
Federal disaster funds were approved late Friday to help cover firefighting costs in the parched area that has only recently shown signs of recovering from a five-year drought. About 500 firefighters were on the scene Friday night at the so-called Little Valley fire, which broke out about 1:30 a.m. in the mountains between Lake Tahoe and Washoe Valley about 8 miles north of Carson City
Fire officials reported zero containment, but said crews working in difficult terrain were aided by afternoon rains, and the winds that were gusting in excess of 50 mph died down as the afternoon wore on. “We’ve made good progress on the homes we are currently protecting,” said Truckee Meadows Fire Battalion Chief Alex Kukulus.
But “we are not out of the woods,” he told reporters. “We have active fire in the whole area and still no real containment.” More crews were on their way from as far away as the San Francisco Bay Area.
“When we ramp this thing up this evening, we hope to have 1,000 firefighters in the area,” Kukulus said Friday afternoon. In addition to the homes, 17 outbuildings have burned. A fire engine also suffered significant damage.
Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District Chief Charles Moore said the cause of the blaze was under investigation. But he said it started in an area where a controlled burn was conducted earlier this week.
The powerful winds fanning the flames reached gusts in excess of 100 mph over the top of the Sierra early Friday. Nearly 10,000 residents were without power at one point. NV Energy said it was restored to all but about 1,000 by 7 pm. Moore said emergency dispatchers received a report of “a glow” in hills west of Washoe Valley at 1:38 a.m.
Crews arrived to find about 5 acres burning. But he said it “grew rapidly and quickly spread to 50 acres” in the winds gusting in excess of 70 mph at the time. “It was surreal to wake up to a mountain that was on fire,” resident Kevin Elvrum told KTVN-TV.
More than 100 homes and ranches are scattered throughout the rural valley bordering Washoe Lake. The ones that have burned are along the forested edge of the valley where it meets the eastern front of the Sierra just west of the lake. One belonged to Dennis Hof, who owns the Moonlite Bunny Ranch brothel east of Carson City. He’s running for the state Assembly as a Libertarian in the November election.
Hof told the Reno Gazette-Journal he wasn’t there at the time but neighbors phoned to tell him his house was burning in the forest south of Reno. He posted photos of it reduced to rubble on his Twitter account Friday afternoon. Kukulus was hopeful the winds would subside enough early Saturday to allow for the use of some helicopters or air tankers.
“We have lots of air ordered up, but yet to put any up because of the wind,” Kukulus said. “They are ready at a moment’s notice.” Evacuation centers were set up in Reno and Carson City for displaced residents as well as pets and livestock.
The governor issued an emergency declaration shortly after he left a special session of the Legislature in Carson City around noon to get a briefing on the situation. The fire delayed the start of the session. Officials for the Federal Emergency Management Agency authorized the use of US fire management assistance to cover as much as 75 percent of the eligible firefighting costs because the threats posed would constitute a major disaster.
The fire that prompted the evacuation of 500 homes on the south end of Lake Tahoe was estimated to be 25 percent contained, thanks in part to rain showers from the storm packing the powerful winds. That fire has burned about 200 acres and forced the closure of part of California Highway 89 but fire officials said they were getting the upper hand on the blaze Friday evening. Firefighters also snuffed out another fire that destroyed at least one structure and had temporarily closed the Mount Rose Highway connecting Reno to Lake Tahoe.