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Carson City Confronts Its Biggest Blaze

At least 14 homes are reduced to ash, but a shift in the wind spares the governor's mansion. Heat, low humidity and wind slow containment.

July 16, 2004|David Kelly and Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writers

CARSON CITY, Nev. — An army of firefighters backed by 26 aircraft battled a fast- moving, erratic wildfire Thursday that had incinerated 14 homes and came within half a mile of torching the governor's mansion in this capital city.

"The trees were so dry they exploded. It sounded like a propane tank blowing up," said Gov. Kenny Guinn, who watched the fire from his window until winds blew it north.

The blaze, which was ignited Wednesday by unknown persons, was dubbed the Waterfall fire and is the biggest in Carson City history. As of Thursday night, it had burned 7,200 acres, injured five firefighters and destroyed 40 structures.

The Carson City Sheriff's Office ordered evacuations of the Franktown, Lake View Estates, Silver Oak and Timberline subdivisions, totaling more than 1,000 homes.

"It's just unreal," said Judy Staub, who lost her home of 22 years. "It was burned down and everything was gone but an old antique wagon."

"People say 'Judy, you have your children and your husband and your dog,' and I say, 'I know that.' But so many memories are gone," she said. "I never dreamed I'd experience something like this."

The fire initially headed for the city's center before turning northwest toward several affluent neighborhoods outside of town.

Firefighters said the blaze was spinning off spot fires, smaller balls of flames that spewed out like Roman candles.

Flames could be seen burning along the ridges above the city, smoke obscuring the setting sun. Weary firefighters deployed throughout the area tried to halt the fire's advance.

On the edge of town, they scrambled to stop a steadily moving inferno from igniting Western Nevada Community College. The campus was evacuated but firefighters managed to protect it.

The fire stretched more than five miles, burning the hills around the city from one end to the other.

"It's absolute devastation up there," Sheriff Kenneth T. Furlong said.

In the Timberline area, firefighters battled a wall of 12-foot flames burning less than 50 yards from well-kept homes. Power was out in much of the area.

"This is one of the most severe fires I have ever been involved with," said Scott Huntley, a spokesman for the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center, which is helping coordinate fire-suppression efforts.

"The forest is bone-dry. There are many dead standing trees in the area. You can see them dotted throughout the forest."

Huntley said this area had seen fire before, but none as wild as this. Like many large fires, this one has created its own weather, with 50-mph winds at its front.

There were 1,135 firefighters on the line Thursday and more might be deployed today, officials said.

Late Thursday night, firefighters were able to get a line around about 30% of the blaze as the wind died down. But low humidity and more wind was forecast today.

Meanwhile, Highway 395 between Reno and Carson City was closed for hours because of poor visibility. Traffic was diverted to Highway 341 through Virginia City, Nev.

A curtain of smoke hung over Carson City as firefighters backed by helicopters and air tankers from as far away as Colorado and Utah fought the blaze.

Fire officials said 160,000 gallons of flame retardant were dumped by aircraft making steep dives toward the burning mountains.

At one point, a group of firefighters made a hasty retreat when winds sent flames barreling toward them, destroying their truck. One firefighter broke his leg, another hurt his back and three suffered minor burns.

On another ridge, Allen Anderson, head of a five-man fire crew, was clearing brush when a wall of flame appeared. "The fire turned and came down with a vengeance," he said.

"It chased us down the hill. To stay would have been suicide."

Nevada has seen bigger fires. In 1999, a lightning strike set a fire that burned for 14 days and destroyed 1 million acres.

"But people who have been fighting fires for 25 years tell me this is the angriest, most unpredictable fire they have seen," Guinn said.

The Republican governor has applied for federal disaster relief funds to help pay for what he expects will be huge repair bills. "It's going to be very expensive. We applied for funds after the first structure was burned."

Fire officials say hot, dry and windy weather is feeding the inferno.

"Carson City is more prone to fires this year because the fuels are so much drier," said Rick Ochoa, national fire weather manager for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Nevada, like much of the West, has seen six years of drought which has desiccated grass and timber.

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Associated Press contributed to this report.

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