RENO -- Firefighters were able to stop the progress of a fast-moving brush fire near Reno on Thursday but not before the wall of flames burned more than 20 homes and forced thousands of people to evacuate.
Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said about 250 firefighters were battling the blaze, which was still uncontained and had grown to nearly six square miles late Thursday. It was eerily similar to another unusual winter fire that destroyed 30 homes in southwest Reno two months ago.
There was one fatality in the fire area, Hernandez said, but he refused to provide more details, saying an autopsy would need to determine the cause of death.
The fire, of unknown origin, erupted shortly after noon along U.S. Highway 395. Soon, more than 10,000 people were told to flee their homes. By late Thursday, all but 2,000 were allowed to return.
Washoe County officials declared a state of emergency, and Gov. Brian Sandoval followed with a statewide declaration.
By nightfall, the fire had burned to the city's southern outskirts. Flames were visible 10 miles away in the downtown casino district.
"It's moving at a very fast rate," Washoe County sheriff's Deputy Armando Avina said. "The winds are extremely powerful in this area."
Winds that had gusted to 82 mph died down after nightfall, and rain started falling, much to the delight of fire crews. The flames were stopped at Galena High School, where Vice President Joe Biden spoke Thursday before the fire forced him to leave early.
The strong winds coming across the Sierra ahead of a winter storm had delayed Biden's visit, and he was two hours late to give the speech at the school on the south end of town.
With the smell of smoke in the air, Biden told the audience about 25 minutes into his address that he was cutting his remarks short.
Meanwhile, about 300 students were evacuated from Pleasant Valley Elementary School, and deputies went door to door asking people to leave their homes in Pleasant Valley, Old Washoe Valley and Saint James Village, Avina said.
Erika Minnberry, 28, said she didn't become concerned at first because smoke from the fire appeared far enough away.
"Probably 30 minutes later, it was up to our house because of the high winds," she said. "I felt pure survival adrenaline. When we drove away, the smoke was so thick, we could barely see ahead of us. Now I feel anxiety. I couldn't find my two cats at the time, and I hope they're OK."
Firefighters were concentrating on using crews and trucks to protect homes in the path of the flames, Hernandez said.
He estimated firefighters had saved about 1,000 structures and said another 80 to 120 firefighters were expected to arrive to help before midnight.
"To say we are in the thick of battle is an understatement," he said.
Hernandez said the fire was "almost a carbon copy" of a wildfire on the edge of the Sierra foothills that destroyed 30 homes in southwest Reno in November. It burned about three square miles and forced the evacuation of 10,000 people.
"It is a wind-driven event and a combination urban, wild-land fire," he said.
As with the November fire, which was sparked by downed power lines, strong winds and dry conditions helped fuel the latest blaze, Hernandez said. The Reno area had gone a winter-record 56 days without any precipitation until light snow fell earlier this week.
"There's a lot of dry trees," Avina said. "We're battling with Mother Nature and these winds."
A gust of 122 mph was recorded Thursday atop Slide Mountain, which is between the fire and Reno at the Mount Rose ski resort.
More wet weather was forecast today, and snow is forecast tonight. But high winds were expected to continue, with gusts up to 40 mph.
About 2,300 homes in the area were without power Thursday night.
Thomas Young, 48, a freelance writer, said he had just gotten out of the shower at his Pleasant Valley home when the power went out. Draped in only a towel, he looked out a window and saw his barn on fire and flames up to his backyard.
"Right away the flames went up a power line, and I said, 'We have to get out of here,' " Young said. "We put two dogs and two kids in the car and drove away about three minutes later. Unfortunately, I think my house is burned down from what I saw."
Part of U.S. 395 was closed as smoke reduced visibility to zero. An 11-mile stretch of the highway would remain closed indefinitely, Hernandez said