Remorseful man admits causing Reno fire

The ruins of a home in Pleasant Valley, south of Reno, Nev., seen on Friday, Jan. 20, 2012, after a wind-driven brush fire raced through the area.
AP Photo/Cathleen Allison

RENO, Nev. — An elderly man discarding fireplace ashes accidentally touched off the brush fire that raged south of Reno, destroying 29 homes and forcing thousands of people to flee the flames, authorities said.

The man admitted his role by improperly disposing of the ashes at his home.

Investigators already had tracked the origin of the fire to a location in East Lake on the north end of the Washoe Valley, where the man lives about 20 miles south of downtown Reno.

"He came forward on his own accord," Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said. "He has given statements to our investigators as well as law enforcement officers. He is extremely remorseful."

Fueled by 82 mph wind gusts, the blaze burned nearly 3,200 acres and forced the evacuation of up to 10,000 people Thursday.

A break in the weather and calmer winds allowed firefighters to get the upper hand on the blaze Friday.

Hernandez estimated it to be 65 percent contained Friday night. He said 300 firefighters would remain on the scene through the night checking for hot spots along with another 125 support people, including law enforcement officers and the Nevada National Guard.

The next challenge may be the forecast for rain and snow in the mountains on Saturday, which officials fear could cause flooding in burned areas.

The Highway Patrol said Friday night that all of U.S. Highway 395 between Reno and Carson City had reopened.

Washoe County Sheriff Mike Haley said a formal case file will be forwarded to the district attorney next week for consideration of charges.

"The DA will have to give this case a lot of deliberation," Haley said.

"The fact he came forward and admitted it plays a role. But so does the massive damage and loss of life," he said. "It's a balancing act."

In addition to the potential for facing jail time on arson charges, the man could also be ordered to pay the cost of fighting the fire, which already totals $690,000.

Washoe County Manager Katy Simon said she expects the final bill to run into the millions of dollars.

Gov. Sandoval toured the fire damaged area Friday, describing it as "horrendous, devastating."

"There is nothing left in some of those places except for the chimneys and fireplaces," he said.