RENO, Nev. (AP) - Firefighters and rescue helicopters battled multiple blazes on mountain roads cloaked with heavy smoke and soaring orange flames as a sudden wildfire consumed the Sierra Nevada foothills in northwestern Nevada and spread down to the valley floor Friday.
Grayish-white smoke melded together as gusts of up to 60 mph fueled at least six fires on Reno's southern border. Firefighters said they had saved 4,000 homes near Caughlin Ranch, the affluent
subdivision of pine-forested hills and horse pastures where the fire began after 12:30 a.m.
A 74-year-old man died from a heart attack while evacuating, 16 people were injured and 20 homes were destroyed after the fire spread to 2,000 acres, up from earlier reports of 400 acres. An evacuation order in the northwestern Nevada region remained in place Friday afternoon.
Fire Chief Mike Hernandez said roughly 400 firefighters had contained the fire. The cause was still unknown.
"I want to caution you, this does not mean the fire is under control," he told reporters. "But we have stopped the forward movement."
Hernandez said he hoped to protect as many homes as possible.
"A lot of people had to evacuate in the middle of the night with little or nothing in terms of possessions," he said.
In all, nearly 10,000 people were sent from their homes into the spreading heat. Several people suffered from smoke inhalation and
the wind gusts were strong enough to nearly capsize shipping trucks, emergency officials said.
"The wind is horrific," said Reno spokeswoman Michele Anderson from a sheriff's deputy car on route to a new command post. "We just watched a semi nearly blow over on the freeway."
The gusts were sending flying embers into canyons and ditches, sparking spot fires, Anderson said.
"Mother Nature is not helping us," she said.
The National Weather Service was calling for southwest winds of 20 to 35 mph with gusts up to 55 mph in Reno on Friday and for west winds of 20 to 30 mph with gusts up to 45 mph on Friday night. Firefighters hoped those same winds might eventually translate into
relief if predicted rain showers fell onto the region late Friday.
The flames cast an amber glow over the hillsides as police went house-to-house, pounding on doors and urging residents to evacuate
in the dark of the night.
Reno spokesman Kevin Knutson said the destroyed homes were
scattered along a stretch of several miles in southwest Reno.
Dick Hecht escaped from his home with his wife after waking to the smell of intense smoke at about 1:30 a.m. A "big red glow" could be seen from the windows of their home.
"The whole mountain was on fire," he said. "It was so smoky, you couldn't hardly see."
The high winds made their escape more difficult.
"I couldn't even stand up," he said. "It was like a tornado."
The couple attempted to return to their home before dawn but was turned back by high winds and erupting flames, Hecht said. As they
made their way back down the mountain roads, flames burned less
than 40 yards from their vehicle.
Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Federal Emergency Management Agency
declared the fire a major disaster. Sandoval said he reached out to
California Gov. Jerry Brown for firefighters' assistance and visited one of the evacuation centers. Hundreds of families had filled two shelters set up at area high schools by midmorning.
"The people are in a state of shock and are hanging in there," Sandoval said.
John and Maggie Givlin were among those watching a television at the shelter at Reno High School Friday morning, 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 smelled smoke and got out of bed and the electricity was out," said John Givlin, a retired civil engineer who has lived there about eight years. "I looked out the front window and saw the glow over the hill before us."
He and his wife made their way out of their home with a flashlight. Outside, flames billowed in every direction.
Reno resident Darian Thorp also described an omnipresent fire, visible through the windows on both side of his home.
"I thought it was an earthquake," he told the Reno-Gazette Journal. "It was all around us."
School buses were on standby to help with evacuations. At least 90 schools were closed for the day to clear the roads of school traffic and make way for emergency workers.