Firefighters scaled back the acreage burned by an explosive wildfire that has torched at least 14 homes, but cautioned their estimate of 30 percent containment means little given extremely dry conditions.
Conditions were so hazardous Friday that the 6,100-acre Waterfall Fire was able to burn through retardant dropped by tankers, authorities said. Dense smoke, whipping winds and intense flames have challenged firefighters in the hilly terrain.
"This is far and away the worst fire I've ever seen in 24 years of firefighting," Acting Carson City Fire Chief Stacey Giomi told hundreds of people, many of them evacuated from their homes, during a community center meeting Friday.
Fire crews trying to deal with low humidity, wind and drought-stricken trees and brush would have needed a half-mile wide stretch of bare dirt to stop embers from spreading, Giomi said.
Improved mapping has enabled officials to reduce their estimates of the fire's size from an earlier total of more than 9,000 acres.
"It's still cooking pretty good," said Peter D'Aquanni of the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center in Minden. "There's still a lot of activity on the mountain."
"It's so close to an urban area," D'Aquanni said. "Most (fires) are out in the wilderness where there are only a few homes. This one has had the potential to be totally catastrophic."
Despite the hazard, only five people have been injured and hundreds of homes have been saved - even though they remain threatened.
The low number of injuries and structure losses was "a miracle," Giomi said.
The count of burned homes could be as high as 16, Giomi said. One business was destroyed, along with 25 barns, garages and other outbuildings since the blaze broke out before dawn Wednesday on the western edge of Nevada's capital. Dozens of cars, trucks, RV's and other vehicles also burned.
One firefighter broke a leg, another suffered back and neck injuries and two others suffered burns. A television reporter suffered minor burns on his hands and face.
More than 1,100 firefighters were on the lines, assisted by 16 aircraft, a dozen bulldozers and 66 engines. Fifty more engines were ordered to help protect structures.
On Thursday, the fire raged out of control, threatening two northwest Carson neighborhoods with about 600 homes before it was stopped at a ridge separating the Washoe Valley to the north.
Investigators believe the fire might have been started by a group of teenagers who were in a canyon Tuesday. Several juveniles have been interviewed, Carson City Sheriff Kenny Furlong said.
The blaze destroyed exclusive homes in the canyon and at one point burned to within half a mile of - but didn't threaten - the governor's mansion.
Gov. Kenny Guinn said the fire hazard made it imperative for federal officials to quickly complete examinations of heavy air tankers recently grounded in nearby Minden. Once cleared to fly, he said those planes would be just minutes away. The big tankers fighting the fire flew in from distant locations to try to save homes and businesses.
"It just makes you sick," Gov. Kenny Guinn said after touring the area where more homes burned Thursday. "You can't put a price tag on the misery these people who lost their homes will go through."
Hugh Fenwick, a commercial airline pilot who lost his $800,000 home, said the fire hit his neighborhood so quickly that all he had time to do was grab some files, a load of clothing and some family heirlooms.
"The ironic thing was that when the fire hit I was building a sprinkler system," said Fenwick, 37, who had constructed the mountainside home in 2001 and moved in only two years ago.
Fenwick, in apparent good spirits despite his loss, added, "What are you going to do? Cry? Crying is not going to bring my house back."
On the Net: Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center: http://www.sierrafront.net/