Thousands of northern Nevadans fled their homes in the dark of night through roads cloaked with heavy smoke and rollicking orange flames as a massive and sudden wildfire consumed the Sierra Nevada foothills and spread down to the valley floor Friday.
The blaze raged through more than 400 acres, claimed at least one life, injured several others, destroyed 20 homes and blanketed Reno and its suburban enclaves in a fiery curtain as violent winds sidelined firefighters and rescue helicopters.
The flames cast an amber glow over the hillsides, as police went house-to-house, pounding on doors and urging residents to evacuate after the fire ignited around 12:30 a.m. in the Caughlin Ranch area.
City of Reno spokesman Kevin Knutson confirmed a man suffered from cardiac arrest after leaving his home and died. "It was due to the evacuation," Knutson said, adding he didn't have any other details.
Knutson said the destroyed homes were scattered along at least a two-mile stretch in southwest Reno.
"The gusts are sending embers downwind and creating new fires," he said. "I think by the time it's over, the fire will be much greater than 400 acres."
In all, nearly 10,000 people were sent from their homes into the spreading heat as gusts of up to 60 mph drove the flames farther into Reno. Several people suffered from smoke inhalation.
"The whole mountain was on fire," said Dick Hecht, who escaped from his home with his wife after waking to the smell of intense smoke at about 1:30 a.m. A "big red glow" could be seen from the windows of their home and the high winds made their escape more difficult.
"It was so smoky, you couldn't hardly see," Hecht said. "I couldn't even stand up. It was like a tornado."
The couple attempted to return to their home before dawn but were turned back by high winds and erupting flames, Hecht said. As they made their way back down the mountain roads, flames burned less than 40 yards from their vehicle.
Fire Chief Mike Hernandez said roughly 400 firefighters were on the ground, but emergency officials were having a difficult time getting ahead of the wind-fueled fire. He said he expected the fire to burn through Saturday.
"We have crews leap frogging from one neighborhood to another," Hernandez said. "Our biggest challenge is the wind, and it's not going to lie down anytime soon."
The National Weather Service was calling for southwest winds of 20 to 35 mph with gusts up to 55 mph in Reno on Friday and for west winds of 20 to 30 mph with gusts up to 45 mph on Friday night.
Gov. Brian Sandoval said he reached out to California Gov. Jerry Brown for firefighters' assistance and visited one of the evacuation centers. "The people are in a state of shock and are hanging in there," he said.
Sandoval and the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared the fire a major disaster.
At least 90 schools were closed for the day to clear the roads of school traffic and make way for emergency workers. Hundreds of families filled shelters set up at two area high schools. School buses were on standby to help with evacuations.
"I thought it was an earthquake," Darian Thorp told the Reno Gazette-Journal. "We could see it from our window. ... Then I could see it from both sides. It was all around us."