200 square miles burn
RENO – Crews battled more than two dozen large fires burning across nearly 200 square miles of rangeland and timber in Northern Nevada on Wednesday, including one on the edge of Reno where the threat to hundreds of homes was subsiding despite winds up to 40 mph.
“In a sense you feel like we’re under assault from Mother Nature right now,” said Jamie Thompson, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Winnemucca.
No injuries were reported and no evacuations had been ordered in the Reno area.
About 400 homes remained on alert into the evening Wednesday due to gusty, erratic winds fanning the 2,459-acre fire burning in protected wilderness in a national forest northeast of Lake Tahoe. But fire officials said the threat to the homes had been “reduced” and an evacuation center set up at a Reno high school was shut down.
“There has been no activity and the … fire is not posing a threat to homes. We remain on standby should things change,” said Randi Thompson, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross of northern Nevada.
The cause of the fire remained under investigation, but fire officials said Wednesday they believe it was started by metal grinding work at a construction site Monday afternoon.
Local residents said they were encouraged by the improving situation.
“I think the whole thing has calmed down quite a bit,” Louise Ward said.
“I’m not as concerned as I was Monday or Tuesday, but I know the possibility (of an evacuation) still exists,” she told KOLO-TV in Reno. “My boxes are still packed, ready to go.”
Many of the lightning-sparked fires were burning north and south of U.S. Interstate 80 in north central and northeast Nevada. Travel on the interstate was reduced to one lane each way in several places between Winnemucca and Wells. The Nevada Highway Patrol closed parts of State Route 305 south of Battle Mountain to Austin and State Route 278 south of Carlin to Eureka.
The biggest blaze in the state, the Kelly Creek fire, had burned nearly 80 square miles of mostly federal rangeland about 30 miles north of Winnemucca.
The pilot of a small airtanker escaped serious injury when his aircraft crashed Tuesday night while attacking a 3,000-acre fire about 15 miles south of Winnemucca.
The pilot, whose name was not released, was pulled from the wreckage by firefighters and taken to a local hospital, where he was treated and released, Thompson said.
“Other than being pretty well soaked with slurry and aviation fuel, he was OK,” Thompson said. “They cleaned him up and sent him home.”
In Reno, 574 firefighters were aided by 10 helicopters and five airtankers dropping water and retardant on the Hawken fire, which forced hundreds of evacuations when it broke out Monday afternoon, burning up to the back yards of numerous homes.
“The conditions we’re experiencing are unprecedented,” Mike Whalen, incident commander from the Forest Service’s Great Basin Management Team, told fire crews early Wednesday.
“This area is experiencing extreme behavior,” Whalen said. “For firefighters, that means be very, very involved and aware that you don’t get too busy fighting the fire so that you don’t see the fire.
“For the public, this means be very afraid of these conditions,” he said.
Fire managers reported progress and estimated the fire to be 15 percent contained.
“A couple of things are working in our favor so far,” said Brandon Hampton, spokesman for a federal interagency fire team directing firefighting efforts.
“The winds are blowing the fire back up into itself, which is great for the firefighters on the line,” he said.
Fire engines were positioned to protect homes in southwest Reno on the northern and eastern fronts of the fire while hand crews dug fire lines on the fire’s western and southern flanks in the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest, which is between the city and Lake Tahoe.
“At this point, I’d say as long as the fire stays on the hill, the homes are OK. But if the wind shifts, it could threaten homes,” Hampton told The Associated Press.
Gov. Jim Gibbons attended a dawn briefing for firefighters at a Reno high school and praised their efforts. “It’s one of the most unusual fire seasons we have ever seen in the state of Nevada,” he said.
The large number of fires in the region caused a shortage of firefighting resources after the fire broke out in Reno, fire officials said.
“We did the best with what we could, but we were short,” said Dan Gustafson, federal fire-incident commander.
“Fire are burning all over Nevada so we are really strapped for resources. It took a long time to get people here because of the limited resources,” he said.
Lightning sparked 14 fires in Elko County alone on Tuesday after 46 fire starts had been reported there on Monday.
The 43-square-mile Hepworth Complex consists of the 25,000-acre Hepworth Fire some 10 miles northwest of Wells and the 2,600-acre Stevens Fire about 20 miles west of Wells. The Hepworth Fire was estimated at 20 percent contained and the Stevens Fire was estimated at 50 percent contained.
The 20-square-mile Winecup Complex consists of the 8,960-acre HD Summit Fire about 20 miles northeast of Wells and the 4,750-acre Scott Creek Fire burning 12 miles west of Jackpot. The Petan Fire about 100 miles northwest of Elko had grown to about 9,600 acres Wednesday.
A 100-acre fire near Spring Creek campground south of Elko burned a half-mile of fence on a ranch owned by the Lee Livestock Co.
Manager Ed Sarman said the flames came within 300 yards of his home before the fire was fully contained Tuesday night.