RENO — Gale-force winds hampered more than 300 firefighters battling a 1,200-acre brush fire that raced along the edge of a valley Tuesday south of Reno, closing a major highway, threatening homes and causing the evacuation of a school.
“This thing is moving pretty fast,” Reno Fire Department spokesman Steve Frady saidfrom the scene on the north edge of Washoe Valley about 10 miles from Reno.
“The winds have been horrible. Early on, we had 40 mph sustained winds with gusts in the 60 mph to 70 mph range. Right now, the winds have diminished a little bit so that may help us out,” he said at about 6:30 p.m., when he estimated the fire to be 10 percent contained.
There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage to homes, though some homes were threatened in the sparsely populated area and at least one out building burned.
Students at Pleasant Valley Elementary School were evacuated on buses to Galena High School on Reno’s south side. No homes were evacuated as the fire raced through brush, but livestock had to be moved out of the fire’s path.
The fire burned up to U.S. Highway 395, forcing a five-mile stretch of the road to be closed for nearly two hours during rush hour. It was reopened at about 5:30 p.m. as a shift in the wind started to push the flames more to the east, away from the highway and populated areas.
Officials said about 350 firefighters were on the fire line, battling stiff winds and thick smoke that blanketed the valley and could be seen 30 miles away. The high winds grounded aerial firefighting equipment but authorities were hopeful of getting some planes in the air this morning.
“The crews are having a hard time holding onto even their gear. Their hard hats are blowing around. Sage brush is blowing into them. It’s pretty intense up there,” Forest Service spokesman Franklin Pemberton said.
“The whole valley is full of smoke, the winds are terrible,” said David Jones, who lives near the fire and was helping neighbors load up horses to be hauled away in trailers.
“The hills are full of cheat grass so we’re all worried about that,”
Dozens of fire engines surrounded homes in the area. Three to four homes were potentially in the fire’s path as it burned to the north-northeast.
“So far, it’s skirted those homes,” Frady said. “It’s burning primarily in moderate to dense sage brush, bitter brush and cheat grass.”
Joe Lindberg said he was arranging with a neighbor to haul his horses away.
“The conditions are a little erratic, it wouldn’t take much for the winds to switch directions,” he told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
“It’s real dangerous for the firefighters.”
The cause of the fire was under investigation but authorities suspected it was started about 2 p.m. by electrical lines downed by high winds.