Reno wildfire destroys 32 homes

RENO, Nev. - Austin and Sarah Hardage were getting their first look at the charred rubble that used to be their home Saturday afternoon when a U.S. Postal Service truck pulled up.

"At least we still have a mailbox," Austin Hardage, 23, joked as he ran down the driveway to grab the mail.

He then explained how they awoke to a smoky, orange glow through the windows about 2 a.m. Friday before joining nearly 10,000 other southwest Reno residents in an evacuation.

Their home is among the 32 that were destroyed by the unusual, out-of-season blaze that spread by gale force winds and ripped through the Sierra foothills.

Gov. Brian Sandoval was among a number of leaders who opined on Saturday that it was a miracle that scores more homes weren't lost.

"This was not only a wild land, urban-interface type fire, it was also a metro fire where we had homes that were actively burning in densely populated areas," Reno Fire Chief Mike Hernandez said.

Many families "had to leave in the middle of the night with very, very limited possessions and they are coming back to devastation, to nothing," he said. "So our hearts and prayers go out to those families."

With flames speeding down the hillside behind the Hardages' house, they decided to grab some clothes and the pets and flee at about 2 a.m.

"Three computers, two dogs and two rabbits. That's pretty much all we have now," Austin Hardage said Saturday, his voice giving way to some tears.

"I'm sorry," he told a reporter. "It hadn't really hit me until I start talking about it."

The house itself in an upscale gated community near Lakeridge Golf Course burned to its foundation.

"It's all just glass and twisted metal," he said.

But in a twist that played out time and time again across the 2,000-acre fire, neighboring houses on either side were untouched by the flames.

"It's just amazing -- Murphy's Law," Austin Hardage said. "It didn't even touch either house on either side. It doesn't make any sense."

A few miles away, Tim Sweeney ended up on the good side of a similar situation.

"The house directly south of me burned completely down," he said. But Sweeney's house -- with stucco walls and a concrete tile roof -- suffered relatively minor damage when blowing embers got underneath the tiles and started burning in the attic.

"Just about everything around the perimeter of my house is gone," Sweeney said.

"Luckily, there was no real damage to the house except where they had to cut holes in the ceiling," he said.

Sweeney, an architect who has lived there 25 years, said the flames had gotten within 100 feet of his home atop Windy Hill when he "finally had to get out of there." Reno firefighters showed up about the same time, he said.

"Those guys just busted their butts fighting that fire. They first thought they were not going to be able to save it," Sweeney said.

A tree burns in the ravine along Manzanita Lane near Broken Arrow in Reno, Nev. Friday, Nov. 18, 2011.
Liz Margerum
Sandoval said after a helicopter tour of the area Saturday that while the loss of homes was tragic, the 400 firefighters on the lines are heroes for saving more than 4,000 houses that could have burned in the blaze investigators suspect was started by arcing power lines.

"When you see something like that, you can't help but be struck by the awesome and random power of nature," Sandoval said about the blackened path of the fire that snaked along the edge of the foothills.

"It is nothing short of a miracle the amount of homes that have been saved," he said. "We're right around the corner from Thanksgiving and I think we in this community have a lot to be thankful for."

Hernandez said there's no official cause yet, but all signs point to the power lines. He said investigators ruled out the possibility that teenage partiers or a homeless campfire was to blame. The fire was 80 percent contained Saturday and should be fully mopped up by the middle of next week, fire officials said.

Austin Hardage said he's been offered some replacement text books for his last four weeks of his senior year in search of an engineering degree at the University of Nevada, Reno. But his notes burned in the fire, as did a number of homework assignments.

"And I was all caught up," he said. "I had to email my professor to say I wasn't going to be there because my house was on fire."

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