Carson Fire 50 Percent Contained, Some Question Response

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As evacuated residents were allowed back into their homes Saturday, some questioned whether firefighters responded quickly enough to douse the blaze before it exploded out of control, destroying 16 houses.

"There are a lot of folks in the canyon who watched it," said Bill Bettridge, whose suburban home was spared while his neighbor's was destroyed.

"We don't know what was being done," in the early stages after the fire broke out in the pre-dawn hours Wednesday, he said.

"We want to feel the response was there. I feel it was, but don't know that," he said.

Fire bosses defended the initial attack and said they'd provide the community with a timeline about how the incident unfolded.

The Waterfall fire, 50 percent contained at 7,566 acres on Saturday, no longer posed an imminent threat to Lakeview, Timberline and Silver Oak foothill communities in northwest Carson City, or the Franktown Road area in Washoe Valley, officials said.

Incident Commander Kim Martin said an aggressive assault was being made on the fire's west flank to prevent it from spreading into the Lake Tahoe basin.

"We're feeling pretty confident," Martin said, adding if the weather cooperates, the fire could be fully contained by early next week.

Nearly 2,000 firefighters remained on the lines Saturday, assisted by more than 120 engines and water tenders, 16 bulldozers and 26 aircraft that included three heavy air tankers.

Martin said some resources could be released to other fires in the West by late Saturday or Sunday.

Despite overwhelming community support, some, such as Washoe Valley resident Betty Kelly, were skeptical of initial efforts.

"This atrocity should never have happened," she said during a town hall meeting Saturday attended by about 100 people. "There was too much waiting and seeing."

Others were offended by the criticism.

"They moved so fast to try to control it," said "Mike" Gutter, who watched the fire unfold from her home near Kings Canyon.

"They worked so hard," she said of firefighters. But the afternoon wind "flattened it out like a pancake and spread it in all directions," she said.

"It's not fair to criticism them."

Fire bosses said before winds roared down the canyon early Wednesday afternoon, they thought they had the battle won.

"Around noon, we thought there was a chance we might have held it," said Gary Schiff, Carson District ranger for the U.S. Forest Service.

But fickle winds out of the west pushed the fire in different directions. Fueled by trees and brush made tinder dry by five years of drought, the fire turned into an insatiable beast unlike any seen in Carson City's history, officials said.

"The fire behavior was nothing I've ever experienced," Schiff said. "It took off in directions that weren't anticipated."

The fire raged out of control for two days, destroying the homes, one business and 25 outbuildings. Cooler temperatures, lighter winds and higher humidity allowed firefighters to gain ground on Friday.

Hugh Fenwick, a commercial airline pilot, sifted through the rubble of his $800,000 home late Friday.

He said the fire hit so quickly that he only had enough time to grab a file cabinet, 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.

He said he plans to rebuild.

Incident Commander Martin also thanked the community for its support, and asked them to refrain from bringing any more provisions to the fire command center.

"We're getting lot of goodies," he said. "We can't consume all this," he said, noting that the outpouring has provided firefighters with an overflow of bottled water, Gatorade, cookies, candy, mouthwash, even baby wipes.

"We're OK, really," he said to laughter from the audience, adding that the many "thank you" signs around town were sufficient thanks.

Stacey Giomi, acting Carson City fire chief, said the fire was first reported by a sheriff's deputy shortly before 3 a.m. Wednesday. He said fire engines were in the area about 10 minutes later, but the site above the Kings Canyon waterfall was inaccessible by road.

Nevada Division of Forestry crews responded to the scene by 3:15 a.m., he said, and the first helicopter was dropping water on the fire by 7:15.

Schiff also sought to defuse criticism regarding two grounded heavy air tankers in Minden, 10 miles south from where the fire broke out.

The planes are awaiting inspection before the government deems them safe to fly. Military surplus tanker planes were grounded after five people died when two came apart in the air in 2002. Investigators listed fatigue cracks as the probable cause of both crashes.

Three of those killed died while fighting a fire in Walker, Calif., about 50 miles south of Carson City.

"It was our local Forest Service folks that two years ago were at that crash," Schiff reminded residents.

He said while the loss of homes was tragic, "In comparison we have to make sure the aircraft we have in the air is safe."

The Minden planes are scheduled for inspection next week, officials said.

Investigators believe the Waterfall fire might have been started by a group of teenagers who were in a canyon Tuesday. Several juveniles have been interviewed and the investigation was continuing, Carson City Sheriff Kenny Furlong said.


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