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Reno Wildfire: 10,000 Evacuated As Wind-Whipped Blaze Burns Several Homes

Reno Fires

SCOTT SONNER and MARTIN GRIFFITH   01/19/12 11:58 PM ET   AP

RENO, Nev. — Fire officials say they have stopped the forward progress of a fast-moving brush fire south of Reno, Nev., that burned several structures and forced about 10,000 people to flee their homes.

Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez says crews were able to stop the wall of flames before it reached Galena High School. That's where Vice President Joe Biden spoke Thursday before the fire threat forced him to cut his appearance short.

The flames were visible from Reno's downtown casino district, about 10 miles away.

Hernandez says crews expect to work through the weekend to get the fire fully contained. It has burned about 3,700 acres, or nearly 6 square miles, since it started shortly after noon.

Hernandez says several homes were destroyed, but he didn't have an exact number.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

Wind gusts of up to 82 mph pushed a fast-moving brush fire near Reno out of control Thursday as a wall of flames burned several homes, threatened dozens more and forced about 10,000 people to evacuate their neighborhoods.

Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said more than 230 firefighters were battling the blaze, which had grown to nearly 5 square miles within hours and was eerily similar to another unusual winter fire that destroyed 30 homes in southwest Reno two months ago.

"Several" homes had been destroyed before nightfall Thursday, Hernandez said. He said he didn't know the exact number 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 of unknown origin broke out shortly after noon along U.S. Highway 395.

Washoe County officials declared a state of emergency a few hours later, and Gov. Brian Sandoval followed with a statewide declaration.

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.

By nightfall, the fire had burned to the city's southern outskirts. Flames were visible 10 miles away in the downtown casino district.

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

The winds died down after nightfall and rain started falling, much to the delight of fire crews.

About 300 students were evacuated from Pleasant Valley Elementary School, and deputies went door to door asking people to leave their homes in Pleasant Valley, Old Washoe Valley and Saint James Village, Avina said.

Erika Minnberry, 28, said she didn't become concerned at first because smoke from the fire appeared far enough away.

"Probably 30 minutes later, it was up to our house because of the high winds," she said. "I felt pure survival adrenaline. When we drove away, the smoke was so thick, we could barely see ahead of us. Now I feel anxiety. I couldn't find my two cats at the time and I hope they're OK."

KRNV-TV reported that 10 homes had burned, including a half dozen in the Washoe Valley Estates neighborhood. 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 were expected to arrive to help before midnight.

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

Hernandez said the fire was "almost a carbon copy" of a huge wild fire on the edge of the Sierra foothills that destroyed 30 homes in southwest Reno in November. It burned about 3 square miles and also forced the evacuation of 10,000 people.

"It is a wind-driven event and a combination urban-wildland fire," he said.

As with the November fire, which was sparked by downed power lines, strong winds and dry conditions helped fuel the latest blaze, Hernandez said. The Reno area had gone a winter-record 56 days without any precipitation until light snow fell earlier this week.

"There's a lot of dry trees," Avina said. "We're battling with Mother Nature and these winds."

More wet weather was forecast Friday, and snow was forecast Friday night. But high winds were expected to continue, with gusts up to 40 mph.

A gust of 122 mph was recorded Thursday atop Slide Mountain, which is between the fire and Reno at the Mount Rose ski resort.

The strong winds caused delays earlier 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.

Hernandez conducted his 5:15 p.m. briefing at the high school, which was evacuated along with surrounding neighborhoods shortly afterward.

About 2,300 home in the area were without power Thursday night.

Thomas Young, 48, a freelance writer, said he had just gotten out of the shower at his Pleasant Valley home when the power went out. Draped in only a towel, he looked out a window and saw his barn on fire and flames up to his backyard.

"Right away the flames went up a power line, and I said, `We have to get out of here,'" Young said. "We put two dogs and two kids in the car and drove away about three minutes later. Unfortunately, I think my house is burned down from what I saw."

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.

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.

The State Patrol said the highway would remain closed through the night.

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Associated Press writers Martin Griffith in Reno and Sandra Chereb in Carson City contributed to this report.

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Filed by Jade Walker  |