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32 homes lost to Reno wild fire; scores more saved

Image: Joelle Greene reacts as she views the remains of her burned home in Reno
Joelle Greene views the remains of her burned home in Reno, on Saturday.Max Whittaker / Reuters
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Arcing power lines likely caused the wind-fueled wild fire that destroyed 32 homes and damaged at least 40 more, Reno fire investigators said Saturday.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval said it's a miracle scores more weren't lost.

The governor said after a helicopter tour of the area that while the loss of homes was a tragedy, the 400 firefighters on the lines are heroes for saving more than 4,000 houses that could have burned.

The 2,000-acre fire is now 65 percent contained, Reno Fire Chief Mike Hernandez said at a morning press conference. It could be 90 percent contained or better by Sunday, he said.

The nearly 10,000 people who were evacuated on Friday were given permission to start returning to their homes.

Hernandez said there's no official cause yet, but all signs point to the power lines. He said investigators ruled out the possibility that teenage partiers or a homeless campfire was to blame.

"It's not uncommon to have power lines arcing and that kind of thing when you have 50, 60 mph winds," Hernandez said.

He said 50 fire engines worked on the fire overnight and 140 firefighters were on the job Saturday morning.

The fire was blamed for the death of a 74-year-old man who had a heart attack while trying to flee. It also left a firefighter first- and second-degree burns and sent 16 people to hospitals, many for smoke inhalation.

At least 400 firefighters from as far as 260 miles away flocked to Reno early Friday as multiple fires roared from the Sierra Nevada foothills in northwestern Nevada and spread to the valley floor.

The wind grounded firefighting helicopters and made it difficult for firefighters to approach Caughlin Ranch, the affluent subdivision bordering pine-forested hills where the fire likely began after 12:30 a.m. It also helped the fire spread from 400 acres to more than 3 square miles.

The gusts were comparable to the Santa Ana winds that often aggravate and spread wildfires in the hills surrounding Los Angeles, officials said.

"The wind is horrific," said Reno spokeswoman Michele Anderson. "We just watched a semi nearly blow over on the freeway."

Hernandez said residents ran from their homes dressed in pajamas, frantically trying to grab as many possessions as possible. One elderly man dressed in his underwear ran out with a blanket wrapped around his body.

Dick Hecht said that when he escaped from his home with his wife, "the whole mountain was on fire," and it was so windy he could barely stand.

"It was like a tornado," he said.

The couple tried to return to their home before morning, but they were turned back by high winds and erupting flames. As they made their way back down the mountain roads, flames burned less than 40 yards from their vehicle.