Washoe fire spares homes

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal A City of Reno firefighter lights backfires off Highway 395 on Washoe Hill on Tuesday afternoon as crews battle the wind-driven Skinner fire.

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal A City of Reno firefighter lights backfires off Highway 395 on Washoe Hill on Tuesday afternoon as crews battle the wind-driven Skinner fire.

PLEASANT VALLEY - Craig Lowe's house has terrific defensible space. He's cleared away the land surrounding his home. There are dirt roads that can act as fire breaks on two sides of it.

But high winds of 40 to 70 mph Tuesday and a home under construction right next door he likened to kindling, had the Carson City Sheriff's detective nervous when arcing power lines sparked a blaze that threatened dozens of Pleasant Valley homes.

Lowe said when he got word there was a fire, he called his house, where his parents stay during the day with his children.

"My parents had no idea there was a fire. My mother said 'I don't see anything,' then she went outside. The flames were like 60 feet tall," he said.

They rounded up the children and drove away from the hill, waiting at a fire station near Pagni Lane.

Lowe was able to make it from Carson to his home, gathering up photo albums and important papers while flames raged above him. He was transferring items from one vehicle into another when a firefighter came running by.

"Get out of here," Lowe recalled him saying.

The detective said he asked one question of the firefighter.

"Do you think it's gonna skip my house?"

"I don't think so," the firefighter said. "I'm sorry."

"I looked up at my house and the last thing I saw before it went absolutely black and suffocating were the flames looking like they were getting ready to overtake my neighbor's new house," Lowe said. "I couldn't' t see my hand in front of my face, it was so black. It was awful."

Lowe said he'd resigned himself to the fact that his home was gone, but a phone call came a few hours later from a neighbor.

"Dude you're not going to believe this ..." the neighbor began.

Lowe's house was spared. A well house at another home atop Washoe Hill was lost, while fire crews saved an adjacent home.

They saved them all on Tuesday.

The fire started in the early afternoon in the desert off Skinner Lane in Washoe City. Sustained winds of 40 mph, with gusts of 60 to 70 mph had shut down Washoe Valley to high-profile vehicles most of the day. The winds now had seemingly set their sites on a new target - flames.

Reno Fire Department spokesman Steve Frady said around 350 firefighters from Reno, Carson City, Storey and Lyon counties, the Bureau of Land Management, Nevada Division of Forestry, Sierra Fire Protection District, Sparks Fire, U.S. Forest Service, Pleasant Valley volunteers and North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District responded.

Frady gave a preliminary estimate of at least 1,200 charred acres, and it's uncertain when the fire could be contained. The winds made fighting the fire by air impossible, he said.

The effort forced emergency crews to shut down the highway, stranding motorists in their vehicles for at least two hours or onto alternate routes that would extend their commute by an hour or more.

At one point the flames leapt the highway on Washoe Hill, but crews quickly snuffed them out.

"This is just a very fast-moving wind-driven fire. It just went as fast as the winds would push it," said Franklin Pemberton, U.S. Forest Service spokesman.

The winds are expected to die down today, with winds expected to reach 15 miles an hour, with gusts to 25 miles an hour, the National Weather Service's Reno office is forecasting.

• Contact reporter F.T. Norton at ftnorton@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1213.


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