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Fire outside Reno forces thousands to flee

The Caughlin fire damages 25 homes and burns up 2,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills. One man dies of heart failure leaving his home.

November 18, 2011|By Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times
  • Residents watch the Caughlin fire spread in Reno. By midday Friday, firefighters seemed to have halted the fire's spread.
Residents watch the Caughlin fire spread in Reno. By midday Friday, firefighters… (Liz Margerum, Reno Gazette-Journal )

Reporting from Las Vegas — A wind-stoked fire that erupted early Friday chased thousands of residents from their homes on the outskirts of Reno, as orange flames licked the sky and chewed through 2,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

The Caughlin fire destroyed or damaged 25 homes as 60-mph gusts scattered embers and flooded houses with smoke. A 74-year-old man fleeing his home died of heart failure, officials said, and more than a dozen people were treated for heart and respiratory problems.

A firefighter who suffered first- and second-degree burns was hospitalized.

PHOTOS: Reno Caughlin fire

"People are in a state of shock," said Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, who declared a state of emergency. "People woke up last night in the middle of the night with their house full of smoke, to suddenly step out on their deck [and] see flames several feet high."

By midday, fire officials said they had halted the blaze's spread, potentially sparing thousands of homes and clearing the way for nearly 10,000 evacuees to return Saturday.

The cause of the fire, which erupted just after midnight, is under investigation. Fierce, erratic winds — which had already downed power lines and knocked over trees — fanned the conflagration and grounded helicopters.

More than 400 firefighters strained to stay in front of the towering flames, which could be seen from Reno's downtown casinos.

"We had fire crews leapfrogging each other," Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said at a news conference. "It was a very dynamic, fast-moving event."

As flames barreled toward densely populated neighborhoods, authorities banged on doors to wake up residents in the fire's path and urge them to leave.

Steve Schroeder, who lives in the Caughlin Ranch area, woke up, looked out his window and saw an orange glow.

"The fire was coming up that hill to the back of the houses across the street from me," he told the Reno Gazette-Journal. "Within five minutes, the wind changed and there were sparks falling out of the air toward the house and into my driveway. I said, 'Wow, we'd better get out.'"

By dawn, officials had closed dozens of schools. Thousands of people were without power, and a handful were without gas. But firefighters soon gained the upper hand on the blaze.

As night fell, the winds died down; snow was expected to dust the region and snuff out hot spots.

PHOTOS: Reno Caughlin fire

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