RENO — A Northern Nevada wildfire more than tripled in size on Tuesday, closing a U.S. highway, forcing evacuations and threatening hundreds of homes as hundreds of firefighters battled the flames from the air and on the ground.
The fire that broke out Monday night in the Pinenut Mountains southeast of Gardnerville sent up a giant plume of smoke visible from more than 70 miles away in Reno. It had burned across an estimated 28 square miles of mostly sage brush, juniper and pinon pines in Douglas County southeast of Lake Tahoe.
No injuries have been reported. At least one primary residence has been destroyed, along with 10 or 12 outbuildings, U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Lisa McNee said.
It had grown to 18,000 acres by Tuesday night, according to the BLM.
At least one large air tanker and several helicopters were dropping retardant and water on the flames, but the fire was burning out of control with no containment. Full containment isn’t expected until sometime next week. More than 400 firefighters were battling the blaze.
U.S. Highway 395 was closed in both directions for about a 16-mile stretch along the Sierra’s eastern front from the south end of Gardnerville to the junction with state Route 208 near the California-Nevada line.
NV Energy started cutting off power to some of the areas where more than 300 homes were threatened. The utility reported more than 500 residences were without power at one point Tuesday evening.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency quickly approved disaster relief funds Tuesday to help fight the fire, and evacuation centers were set up at local motels in Gardnerville and Minden.
Anthony Piazza was among those who decided to evacuate Tuesday to the Carson Valley Inn along U.S. Highway 395. He didn’t know when to expect when he returns home.
“Hopefully there will be a house there. Because when I was over there, there were flames everywhere,” he told KTVN-TV.
McNee said authorities were having trouble determining how many people at area motels had actually evacuated homes in the area.
“With U.S. 395 shutdown, a lot of people just stopped traveling,” she told The Associated Press. “We’re still trying to get a number of actual evacuees.”
Gusty winds that hampered the initial aerial attack Monday night eased up Tuesday but were forecast to return Wednesday afternoon.
FEMA said as many as 1,000 homes were threatened when it approved the federal disaster relief early Tuesday. Gov. Steve Sisolak requested the funding late Monday.
The blaze began as three separate fires that burned together Monday night, blanketing Carson Valley with heavy smoke.
One resident said the initial response by dozens of fire crews was amazing.
“The entire valley … lit up like Christmas last night,” Judy Jewkes told KOLO-TV.
An evacuation center for area livestock was opened at Douglas County Fairgrounds.
Lillian Brown, founder and owner of the Dimond L Ranch Equine Foundation in Gardnerville, said Tuesday that she’d spent the past 24 hours scrambling to move about 70 horses to safety after officials showed up at her door and told her to evacuate on Monday night.
“We had so many amazing people come help out last night, and we couldn’t have done it without them,” Brown said, adding that about half of her horses are being housed at the Fairgrounds.
Brown said that many of her animals are rescued wild horses, so they can be spooked even more easily during uncertain times and require special care when being transported. She said not all of the volunteers who helped move the animals on Monday night had experience with wild horses, but that the Fairgrounds are equipped to care for the horses.
It was a shock to hear that they needed to evacuate, Brown said, especially on such short notice.
“They showed up at our door last night and said that we had to get the horses out in 20 minutes,” Brown said. “I’ve lived here 15 years and have never had to evacuate like this. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
She explained that about half of her horses are still at her ranch, with the other half at the Fairgrounds. She said she’s not sure which is more safe, though, given that from both locations “it looks like the fire is rolling straight at us.”
But officials told her that the arena on her property would likely be a safe place to keep some of the horses because it’s a big dirt area, she said. She’s hoping she’ll be able to keep the remaining animals there instead of transporting them, but said her plan is just to take it hour by hour.
Her biggest concern as of Tuesday night was how she’d be able to feed the animals at two separate locations, and said anyone interested in donating hay or feed can reach her at 775-790-5668.
KOLO-TV reported that arson investigators were on scene, but the cause of the fire remained under investigation.
Review-Journal staff writer Alexis Ford contributed to this post.