By SCOTT SONNER
The Associated Press
RENO — Kristina Wright fell asleep listening to the TV weatherman’s forecast for possible snow on the valley floor where she lives on edge of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
"I thought I’d wake up to scrape my windshield not be told to evacuate because there was a fire behind my house," she said.
Wright was among the thousands of evacuees anxious to get back to their homes on Saturday after a series of wind-fueled fires blew across a stretch of about four miles of southwest Reno the day before.
The unusual mid-November blaze burned 25 homes, sent 16 residents to the hospital plus a firefighter with serious burns and contributed to the death of a 74-year-old man who went into cardiac arrest packing his essentials as he prepared to flee.
More than 2 miles separated some of the damaged homes as the winds with gusts in excess of 70 mph spread burning embers down the Sierra front and through a patchwork of canyons and ravines on the city’s southwest side.
"I watched a house catch on fire on the ridge," said Wright, 22, who lives in a neighborhood just below the aptly named Windy Hill about five miles south of the downtown casino district.
"It was like a tornado," she told The Associated Press in an interview on Saturday. "I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t even open my car door without it slamming me."
"The deputy said ‘Go get your animals and call into work. Your neighborhood is next. With the way the winds are an ember could hit your roof and spark at any time," Wright said.
More than 100 police officers and National Guard members were patrolling streets in the fire area to protect homes from vandals, Assistant Police Chief Mike Whan said.
The wind carried embers up to a mile, attacking upscale homes in random spurts. Police went house-to-house, pounding on doors and urging residents to evacuate in the dark of the night. Flames at times reached 50-feet high.
The cause of the blaze wasn’t known, but a downed power line or homeless encampments in the area might be to blame, Hernandez said. He said the region is also a popular area for teenagers who might have started the fire to stay warm.
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.
Evacuees could return to their homes at noon Saturday, Reno Mayor Bob Cashell said. A number of local hotel-casinos were also offering discounted rooms to displaced residents.
More than 150 people had filled two shelters set up at area high schools by midmorning.
John and Maggie Givlin were among those watching a television at Reno High School, scanning the screen for details on whether the home they left behind was safe. They already were preparing to flee when a police officer knocked on their door at about 1:30 a.m.
"I looked out the front window and saw the glow over the hill before us," John Givlin said.
He and his wife made their way out of their home with a flashlight. Outside, flames billowed in every direction.
A number of local hotel-casinos offered discounted rooms to displaced residents and at least 90 schools were closed for the day to clear the roads of school traffic and make way for emergency workers.
More than 4,000 NV Energy customers lost power as poles and electrical wires were scorched and knocked down, said spokeswoman Faye Andersen. Utility workers were not allowed into the fire area.
The U.S. Postal Service suspended delivery to the area for the day, and the state high school athletic association moved its football playoffs from Friday night to Monday.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS reporters Martin Griffith in Reno; a and Michelle Rindels, Cristina Silva and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas contributed to this report.