Wind in forecast raises fears after Nevada wildfire burns homes; hundreds threatened


RENO, Nev. (NewsNation Now) — Another lashing of strong winds expected in northern Nevada raised concerns Wednesday about reviving a wildfire that roared through a neighborhood in Reno in similar weather a day earlier, destroying at least five houses, damaging 15 other structures and forcing people to flee from hundreds of homes.

A separate fire about 100 miles south and across the border in California exploded in whipping winds Tuesday, killing one person and burning an unknown number of homes in a small community.

The Pinehaven Fire started shortly after 1 p.m. near the intersection of Pinehaven Road and Sierra Pine Drive in southwest Reno, also known as the Caughlin Ranch area, according to updates from the city’s website.

Both blazes got help from rain that moved in overnight, but the new forecast raised fresh fears in Reno.

“We’re looking at 40 mph winds in the valleys again today, 70 mph over the ridgetops, so that will be a concern for us,” Fire Department incident commander Mark Winkelman said.

Two firefighters were injured while battling the blaze over 2 square miles but have been treated and released. One suffered an allergic reaction, and the other tore a calf muscle helping evacuate residents from up to 500 homes threatened Tuesday in southwest Reno.

Extremely dry conditions helped fuel the blaze in rugged, hard-to-reach canyons that run between homes in the densely populated neighborhood, Reno Fire Chief David Cochran said.

“Even though there was literally snow on the ground in some areas, a wind-driven fire like that is almost impossible to stop,” Cochran said.

Nevada is experiencing drought, with much of it in extreme drought, and has moved in and out of such dry conditions for years. Numerous studies have linked bigger wildfires in America to climate change from the burning of coal, oil and gas, which has made parts of the U.S. West much drier and more flammable.

Investigators from the state and Reno fire marshal’s office as well as the utility NV Energy were trying to find the cause of the fire.

Winkelman said it started about 200 yards from the origin point of a November 2011 fire that destroyed 27 homes. That blaze was started by arcing power lines at a substation in strong winds, he said.

On Tuesday, the wind made it impossible to send up aircraft to help fight the flames, with support from local and federal agencies in northern Nevada and neighboring California becoming critical before wet weather moved in later, Winkelman said.

“It takes a village, as it were, to put out something like this. No one fire department can ever be staffed or equipped to handle something like this,” said Cochran, the fire chief.

Crews have dug lines around about 5% of the perimeter of the fire and anticipated to have it fully contained by Friday.

Authorities said they hoped to allow evacuees to return to their homes later in the day. Several roads remained closed.

As many as 500 homes could be threatened by the blaze that grew to more than two square miles within hours of igniting in brush above the neighborhood, Reno Fire Chief David Cochran said. He said “multiple” homes had been lost, but he didn’t know how many.

There were no immediate reports of injuries, and the cause of the fire was under investigation.

Winds gusting over 50 mph drove the flames but later subsided and rain was in the forecast Tuesday night.

Cochran said teams were responding from fire departments in Reno and California to help battle the blaze through the night.

“This is an extremely dynamic situation,” he said. “Precipitation is expected, but we’re not relying on that. We are working to protect homes to the extent that we can.”

Gov. Steve Sisolak declared a state of emergency reported NewsNation affiliate KLAS and in a statement thanked first responders, adding “This truly reflects Nevada’s Battle Born spirit and our commitment to caring for one another in times of need.” 

Mayor Hillary Schieve signed a local emergency declaration and pleaded with residents to stay out of the area. Police Chief Jason Soto said he was increasing patrols in evacuated neighborhoods to help protect homes and businesses.

The Reno Police Department tweeted 1300 homes within the evacuation area was without power. Authorities cut power to about 7,000 customers as a precaution, and several roads were closed.

Police assisted with evacuations, and the Red Cross set up an emergency shelter at the Washoe County senior center.

Meanwhile, crews north of Reno were battling a brush fire that broke out along the California-Nevada line and has forced the closure of State Highway 70 near Vinton and Chilcoot, California. Authorities said some structures were threatened.

Another fire about 100 miles to the south exploded in size after breaking out around noon Tuesday in California’s Mono County near the Nevada border. Evacuation orders were issued for the tiny mountain community of Walker and other nearby towns as wind-whipped flames churned through trees and dry brush.

The wind was blowing in ahead of a Sierra storm that the National Weather Service said was more powerful than one that carried winds gusting in excess of 100 mph last Friday.

The Associated Press and NewsNation affiliate KLAS contributed to this report.

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