Five years later: Revisting the Waterfall fire

Five summers ago in the scorching heat of a typical Nevada July, an unattended campfire sprung to life in the hills of Kings Canyon in West Carson City.

From the homes below no one suspected what was to come, but less than 12 hours later a perfect storm of drought, thick brush and high winds turned that forgotten campfire into an inferno that raced down the mountain and sent hundreds of residents fleeing from their homes.

The ensuing week was one of contrasts set against a backdrop of charred hills: Heartbreak in which 18 homes were lost; heroism from the rescuers, survivors and the community.

Up on the hill at the end of Kings Canyon Road on July 14, 2004, firefighters knew they were up against a formidable opponent, said Fire Chief Stacey Giomi.

The first report of a fire was received by Carson City fire dispatch at 2:57 a.m. A Carson City deputy patrolling the Goni Road area noticed a small glow and called it in. By 3:50 a.m., a hand crew was on a ridge slightly south and above the Kings Creek waterfall.

"Right away we had crews up here with shovels and picks," said Giomi on Wednesday as he stood near the spot three-quarters of a mile up the rugged mountain where the Waterfall fire first began. "But our biggest obstacle was that we couldn't get any water on the fire, and the tools we had were no match for the enemy."

As the morning wore on, residents leisurely watched the activity. At daybreak, air support came to douse the area with water. A command post was set up Longview Way.

The first crisis - and probably the turning point of the fire, said Giomi - happened when reports came in that one firefighter had a broken leg and another a possible broken back on an outcropping of rocks amid 100-foot-tall pine trees that were combusting like match sticks.

The focus of the water drops shifted to the area around the injured firefighters and their rescuers.

"One of the reasons that the fire, I think, got as bad as it did, was because we now had 20 firefighters that we had to rescue," said Giomi. "That happened at the peak area of time when we could gain the most headway on a fire from about 10 a.m. to noon.

"And about 1 o'clock is when it really took off from the backside of this hill. It caught that down canyon wind, and that's when it whipped around us and went around the front."

For the fire crews and residents at the end of King Canyon Road, all hell broke loose.

"The combination of downslope winds, warm temperatures, dry fuels and the slope ... made it a firestorm," said Carson City Battalion Chief Dan Shirey at the time.

Flames raced out of the canyon, consumed three emergency vehicles, some of which contained people, and homes belonging to the Burnaugh, Stokes, Best, Carlson, Darney, Kulik, Kelly, Staub and Ouilette families.

Anyone at the end of Kings Canyon fled.

"When that thing blew up, we weren't sure we didn't kill people," said Giomi. "I came out of there, and I thought I would be very surprised if we didn't have dead firefighters up there."

The inferno raced north toward Ash Canyon, east to C Hill, and south toward Voltaire Canyon.

Flames nearly consumed homes at the foot of C Hill. Fire crews and homeowners were able to keep the flames from spreading to homes along West Fifth Street, but the fire raced along the ridge and came onto Curry Street behind the Shell gas station.

There the fire continued south where it narrowly missed a home on the west side of Curry Street, ran behind the railroad museum, burned outbuildings and hay bales behind S&W feed, raced past Greenhouse Garden Center, and set it sights on Preston Auto/Electric at 291 Rhodes St. and the Borst home at 340 Betts St. The business and home were destroyed.

From Lakeview to Voltaire Canyon, homes were evacuated.

Almost immediately, local media began fielding dozens of phone calls from people wanting to help. Some offered up their pastures to displaced horses, others offered to take in dogs, birds, cats and livestock.

The emergency shelter was swamped with clothing, drinks, food, water. An emergency animal shelter sprung up at Fritsch Elementary. While it seemed the entire city was in flames, everyone wanted to come to the rescue.

By nightfall, the flames against the pitch black mountains resembled lava seeping from a volcano. The air was thick with smoke. People were unsure what had survived.

Fire crews, aided by calmer winds, were able to get a line around the fire and stop it from reaching homes in Ash Canyon.

With the sunlight of the next morning came optimism. Evacuated families were allowed to return to their homes.

But the afternoon winds Thursday reawakened the fire with a fury.

Like a replay of the previous day in Kings Canyon - panicked families began their exodus from Timberline.

As the fire swept north and firefighters made determined stands to save most of the houses, the fire gobbled up the homes of the Schardin, Amrhein, Osborn, Carter, Goodnight, Verschell, Fenwick and Randall families.

Giomi still winces at the thought of the homes that were lost.

As a teenager, his family's restaurant and his father's life's work - an Italian delicatessen - burned to the ground.

"I wasn't our home, but it was our livelihood. The walls were filled with family pictures and the whole family worked there," he said. "I understand how devastating it is."

He said he and all the local firefighters still feel a sting about the Waterfall fire.

"We've all been to wildland fires where homes have burned down, but they aren't homes of your neighbors, and they aren't homes of your friends," he said.

"Emotionally that is the biggest difference, you're a little bit detached when you go away - not that you do the job any differently - you're just a little bit detached because you don't see the guy whose house burned down in the grocery store once a week."

Mark Carter said he saw first-hand Giomi's regret.

"A week later he came to see us and he was in tears about having been unable to save our house," said Carter on Friday. "I was moved by it. I thought it showed the dedication he has to his job, that he would be so concerned that he had been unable to do something that was probably impossible to do."

Eighteen homes burned July 14 and 15, 2004, in the Waterfall fire.

Though not as damaging as the Angora fire in Lake Tahoe 2005, or as deadly as last summer's horrific blazes across Australia, it was the largest natural disaster to ever hit Carson City and took more than 2,000 firefighters five days to contain it.

The pages of the Nevada Appeal were filled for weeks after with the stories of those families left homeless, some who only made it out with the clothes on their backs.

Carson City learned about:

- Pediatrician Dr. Kathi Amrhein, then seven months pregnant with her second child, and how in the aftermath, she and her husband, Ron, struggled to find some normalcy for her 2-year-old son while Kathi maintained her practice.

- Businessman Bill Burnaugh who lost everything, even an irreplaceable gun collection in a fireproof safe inside a fireproof room, but who pined most for his pet cockatoo R2 that he left behind.

- Doug Kelly, who a week after the fire stood with his hands in bandages, recalling how, armed only with a garden hose he tried in vain to extinguish the all-consuming blaze that was devouring his everything.

- The Ouilette family who lived in their privately owned mobile home as caretakers at the Quill Water Treatment plant and were largely forgotten by the city as being victims of the fire.

Now, a half a decade later, some families have rebuilt. Other have moved away.

• Sixteen months after the fire, Charles and Karen Schardin moved into their new home at 4370 Timberline Dr., which they rebuilt with the original house plans as a guide.

"It's the same floor plan. We just moved a few walls here and there to give us more space," Charles said recently. "The only thing that was kind of funny was that in some places the doors opened differently or the light switch was moved, and I'd still reach for the light switch in its old place. Some habits die hard."

He the fire taught him the value of his life.

"Your family and the people you love are important, but we found that a lot of the stuff that we had we did not replace. In the grand scheme of things, they were not that important."

• Al Verschell, now 82, said he wouldn't rebuild, and he didn't. Verschell, former part owner of Tequila Dan's restaurant, ended up staying in an RV in a friend's yard for a while after the fire. Then in a rental home.  

"I lost just about everything," he said. "What I got away with was one drawer of important papers, my cat and the cat box."

Eventually, he made his way to Lady Lake, Fla.

"I was living in the rental house and going to Blockbuster every day for movies. I wasn't able to do what I could do with the young crowd in Carson anymore, and I had a friend who was living here in the villages in Florida. I thought I'd try it," he said from his Florida home. "I never should have left. I miss Carson City a great deal. Florida is a horrible place, it's a swamp.

"Its now coming on five years for the fire and four years for me since I left Carson. I would hope that Carson is as good as it always was."

• Norma Best, now 93, lost her home at 3737 Kings Canyon Road. She has no plans to rebuild.

"We're just leaving the ground vacant in hopes that one of our great grandchildren might like to have the property," she said. "We did plant some trees - four different kinds of trees - to make it look a little nicer."

Best is living with her son and daughter in Kings Canyon Highlands now.

"The biggest reason we didn't rebuild was the place was devastated. We were used to having all those huge pine trees, such a beautiful setting. When it all burned up there was no point in our living there. It was too depressing.

"I learned that material possessions are not what's important in life, the human connections with people you love is what important. All the rest is just stuff."

• Randolph Carlson moved into his rebuilt home at 4081 Kings Canyon Road 13 months after the fire.

He said the fire brought him closer to his neighbors. They even collaborated on the rebuilding of his home.

"I got to know them as part of the process and rebuilding. It was fun," he said.

"We went through the adventure, and now we have a much bigger much more beautiful house," he said.

• It was two years before Brian and Mary Ann Randall could return to a home at 4441 Timberline Dr.

"It took us a good six months before we could get ourselves together. It took us a while to regroup and then to sit down and think clearly and make up the plans again.

"We lost everything, we did get our family pictures out and some of our papers and things like that, but the rest was definitely burned to the ground," said Mary Ann. "It was definitely devastating. It shakes you from the roots. Everything that you think was important kind of goes up in smoke, except it's not really everything that's important, its just material stuff that can be purchased again."

• Robin and Robert Darney not only had to battle the insurance company when their home burned down, but they also battled the U.S. Army who expected them to pay $20,000 for their soldier son's gear that was lost in the blaze.

The fire came while he was in between Army training and his permanent duty station. Ultimately, the Darneys prevailed.

For 27 months they moved from rental home to rental home, while Robin toted her four school-aged children, sometimes from Douglas County, into school every morning.

But despite the two-year struggle, Robin said she wouldn't take it back.

"The bottom line on this thing is, it sucked. But if I had to do it all over again, I would. I would not change the journey, because everything that happens to us in life, we learn something from," she said. "Going through something like this really shows you what you are capable of and what your family is capable of. We could have fallen apart, but we didn't fall apart."

• Mark Carter said of the fire, "It's greatest thing that ever happened to me."

He and his wife, Lynne, rebuilt their home on Denmar Circle just for them.

Now "empty-nesters," Carter said they no longer needed the home in which they'd raised their children. The new dream home is more compact with more outside space for Lynne to work her magic and a verandah that runs around it so they can enjoy the views.

"The strongest feeling I had after the fire was disorientation. I felt like I didn't have roots," he said. "But we're very happy now."

• It was just about two years before John and Judy Staub were back in a house at 3666 Kings Canyon Road.

John said the house is a new design. He and Judy spent hours walking through model homes to find a layout that suited them and took advantage of their city views.

"It's funny, I've lived in this house for 27 years, and I always liked the lot but never liked the house. I thought, there's no good way to keep the lot and get rid of the house, then God figured out a way."

John said if he could change one thing about the fire, it would be that he had five more minutes to go back inside and get the important things he missed when they fled the home.

"The things you can't replace, the kids sports videotapes, the baby books. You get the baby pictures but you don't reach up on the shelf and get the baby book with the lock of hair," he said.

But as time passes, he finds that the memory fades.

"Obviously, time heals," he said, then added with a chuckle. "I thought it was a great way to clean out the garage."


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