Nevada Wildfire Victims Share Varied Stories

RENO, Nev. — With a wind-whipped wildfire roaring through a Reno neighborhood, David Howton sprang into action with a garden hose and was lucky to save his home.

About a mile away, Scott and Mimi O’Brien weren’t so lucky. The home they recently rebuilt after it burned in an electrical fire less than two years was among five destroyed and more than two dozen damaged on Nov. 17.

Howton, a former firefighter who now teaches fourth grade in Reno, said his quick action saved his home and likely his next-door neighbor’s, where flames were leaping over the back deck before Howton doused them.

“It was the most convenient thing to use,” he told the Reno Gazette-Journal. “So as soon as I went and got my garden hose, I was able to put out the fire.”

Howton left school that day and went straight home to save his shed after his wife, Marcia, told him their fence had caught fire.

Marcia Howton had gathered up their bunny and three dogs and went to her sister’s house about a mile away, where she was updating her husband on the fire.

David Howton admitted that, after hearing his wife and pets were safe, his thoughts turned to his shed.

“I don’t get as excited as some people do when there’s a fire because I’ve done that for my whole adult life,” said David Howton, who was a firefighter in Gainesville, Florida. “So when she said that fence was on fire, I was getting here to save my shed. I didn’t expect my house to be on fire.”

David Howton first found his back steps on fire. The fire had moved down the canyon, and his neighbor’s fence was on fire too. So he grabbed the garden hose and got to work.

He extinguished the fire lapping at his steps and then went to the neighbor’s house to quickly put out the burning fence.

The whole incident took about 10 minutes.

“Fortunately, the hose was already hooked up so I was able to just grab it and having seen so many fires I knew it wasn’t going to go anywhere in two or three minutes,” Howton said.

There was no significant damage to the Howtons property and only minor damage to their neighbor’s yard and fence.

Not far away, Mimi O’Brien was in the baby’s room that day when she smelled smoke, she told the Gazette-Journal .

It was enough to make her stop folding the newborn pajamas printed with little gingerbread men and look out the window.

“You never will forget smoke smell once you smell it,” she thought.

O’Brien called her mother, who told her not to worry. So, O’Brien tried to ignore her own thoughts. She looked around the nursery, which was nearly done ahead of her Dec. 5 due date. It was black and white and modern.

It was the last room to finish in the new house. And in just two weeks O’Brien would be sitting in a chair rocking her baby.

Hours later, their house burned.

In 2018, an electrical fire started while the O’Brien family slept. They woke to neighbors, who had seen the flames, honking and banging on the door and garage. The back of the home burned. What was left was damaged beyond repair by water and smoke.

But there was never a question that they would rebuild. And they plan to do so again.

The house was in a perfect location for Mimi, who owns a nearby boutique, and Scott, a school district police officer. The house was less than a minute from her parents’ home, and her children would go to the same elementary school Mimi had attended.

In August they moved back in.

In the weeks and days before the fire, the family had unpacked the last of the boxes and hung pictures.

The afternoon of the latest fire, O’Brien heard loud sirens. Soon after, an officer was at the door telling her to evacuate.

O’Brien grabbed her husband’s police uniforms and a stuffed animal for each of her two sons. Dane was in school. She put 2-year-old Reed and the family’s two dogs in the minivan and drove away.

“I just knew when I left, I wasn’t coming back to my house,” she said.