Homes, Schools Threatened as Fires Scorch Nevada, Arizona and California

May 1, 2008

Firefighters had to contend with gale-force winds while battling a huge brush fire that raced along the edge of a valley south of Reno, forcing a major highway to close, threatening homes, and causing the evacuation of a school.

About a dozen firefighters needed treatment after the winds gusting up to 68 mph blew dirt, ash and cinders in their eyes, Reno Fire Department spokesman Steve Frady said on April 29. Five were taken to a hospital in Reno.

“It was gusting, really pushing hard. We were getting dust in our eyes continuously,” Frady said. “Right now, the winds have diminished a little bit, so that may help us out.”

There were no reports of any other injuries or damage to homes, though some homes were threatened by the wildfire burning 1,200 acres – or 1.9 square miles – in the sparsely populated area. A pump house and a storage shelter burned.

Students at Pleasant Valley Elementary School were evacuated on buses to Galena High School on Reno’s south side. No homes were evacuated as the fire raced through brush, but livestock had to be moved out of the fire’s path.

The fire started at about 2 p.m. and forced a five-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 395 to be closed for nearly two hours during rush hour. It was reopened about 5:30 p.m. as a shift in the wind started to push the flames more to the east, away from the highway and populated areas.

Earlier in the day, thick smoke blanketed the valley and could be seen 30 miles away. The high winds grounded aerial firefighting equipment, but authorities hoped to get planes in the air Wednesday morning.

“The crews are having a hard time holding onto even their gear. Their hard hats are blowing around. Sage brush is blowing into them. It’s pretty intense up there,” Forest Service spokesman Franklin Pemberton said.

In Arizona, crews using bulldozers cut fire lines and credited lighter winds and lower temperatures with helping them keep a wildfire near the Grand Canyon from spreading.

The fire has burned an estimated 2,000 acres – or more than 3 square miles – of ponderosa pine south of the Grand Canyon National Park boundary, said Jacqueline Denk, a spokeswoman for the Kaibab National Forest.

Forest Service officials are concerned that strong winds on April 30, coupled with dry conditions, could lead the human-caused fire to increase in size. A smoke column from the fire was visible from the South Rim.

The fire has not destroyed visitor facilities at Grand Canyon National Park and was not threatening structures or the community of Tusayan, south of the Grand Canyon, said Denk.

In Southern California, firefighters extended containment lines and stamped out hotspots as calmer weather helped firefighters against a 538-acre wildfire that earlier threatened homes.

About 1,000 people were told they could return to homes they fled have since the fire started on April 26. Public schools also reopened in Sierra Madre, about 15 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

Associated Press writers Sandra Chereb in Reno and Mark Carlson in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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