Man claims responsibility for Reno fire that claimed 29 homes
Winds topping 80 mph push flames over tinder-dry brush
Saturday, January 21, 2012
RENO, Nev. (AP) — An “extremely remorseful” elderly man admitted Friday that he accidentally started a brush fire that destroyed 29 homes near Reno when he improperly discarded fireplace ashes at his home south of town, authorities said.
“He came forward on his own accord,” Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said about the man. The resulting blaze, fueled by 82 mph wind gusts, burned nearly 3,200 acres and forced the evacuation of up to 10,000 people Thursday.
“He has given statements to our investigators as well as law enforcement officers. He is extremely remorseful,” the chief said.
Investigators had tracked the origin of the fire to a location in East Lake on the north end of the Washoe Valley, where the man lives about 20 miles south of downtown Reno.
Washoe County Sheriff Mike Haley said a formal case file will be forwarded to the district attorney next week for consideration of charges.
“The DA will have to give this case a lot of deliberation,” Haley said. “The fact he came forward and admitted it plays a role. But so does the massive damage and loss of life. It’s a balancing act.”
In addition to the potential for facing jail time on arson charges, the man could also be ordered to pay the cost of fighting the fire, which already totals $690,000.
The blaze started shortly after noon Thursday and, fueled by the wind, mushroomed to more than 6 square miles before firefighters stopped its surge toward Reno.
The strong, erratic winds caused major challenges for crews evacuating residents, Sierra Front spokesman Mark Regan said. “In a matter of seconds, the wind would shift,” he said.
Haley confirmed that the body of June Hargis, 93, was found in the fire’s aftermath, but her cause of death has not been established, so it’s not known if it was fire related.
Jeannie Watts, the woman’s 70-year-old daughter, told KRNV-TV that Hargis’ grandson telephoned her to tell her to evacuate but she didn’t get out in time.
A break in the weather and calmer winds allowed firefighters to get the upper hand on the blaze Friday.
Hernandez estimated it to be 65 percent contained Friday night. He said 300 firefighters would remain on the scene through the night checking for hot spots along with another 125 support people, including law enforcement officers and the Nevada National Guard.
About 2,000 people remained subject to evacuation, and about 100 households still were without power.
The next challenge may be the forecast for rain and snow in the mountains on Saturday, which could cause flooding in burned areas, Hernandez said.