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Man admits dumping fireplace ash sparking Reno-area blaze

More than two dozen homes burned in the blaze before firefighters brought it under control. NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.


Updated at 8:45 p.m. ET:

 RENO, Nev. -- Reno authorities say an elderly man has admitted to improperly disposing fireplace ashes, a potential cause of the Washoe Drive Fire that was 65 percent contained at 5 p.m. local time.

Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said the man is extremely remorseful and is cooperating with investigators.

A woman suffocated from the fire and an investigation into the blaze is now a criminal probe, officials said.

The definitive cause of the 3,200-acre blaze that destroyed 29 homes was still under investigation, officials said. The figures are a change from earlier damage tolls given by authorities.

Updated at 1:45 p.m. ET:

Firefighters worked Friday to hold the line on a fast-moving brush fire near Reno that forced more than 10,000 people to flee and destroyed more than 26 homes. Fire officials said one person was dead.

The blaze started shortly after noon Thursday, and about 2,000 people remained under evacuation orders late Thursday, Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said.

More than 700 people were expected to fight the fire Friday. Spokesman Mark Regan of the Sierra Fire Protection District said the blaze, which burned 3,700 acres, was 50 percent contained.

The cause of the blaze was not determined.

Hernandez said that 20 homes were destroyed, but a full assessment might reveal even more damage. There was one death in the fire area, Hernandez said, but he declined to provide more details, saying an autopsy would be needed to determine the cause.

The blaze was "almost a carbon copy" of a huge wild fire that destroyed 30 homes in southwest Reno in November, the fire chief said. It also forced the evacuation of 10,000 people.

"It's inconceivable that this community has been struck by tragedy again," said Gov. Brian Sandoval, who declared a state of emergency Thursday.

It was not yet known what caused the fire.

Wet weather was forecast Friday, and snow was forecast Friday night. But high winds were expected to continue.

The Reno area had gone a winter-record 56 days without any precipitation until light snow fell earlier this week. 

Updated at 5:12 a.m. ET: Firefighters worked early Friday to hold the line on a fast-moving brush fire that tore through the Reno area, destroying more than 20 homes and forcing thousands of residents to flee.

The blaze started shortly after noon Thursday and, fueled by wind gusts reaching 82 mph, mushroomed to more than 6 square miles in size before firefighters stopped its surge toward Reno.

About 2,000 people remained under evacuation orders late Thursday, Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said. About 250 firefighters were battling the blaze.

Wet weather was forecast Friday, and snow was forecast Friday night. But high winds were expected to continue, with gusts up to 40 mph.

About 2,300 homes in the area were without power Thursday night.

Updated 1:10 a.m. ET: More than 10,000 people have been evacuated as a wind-driven wildfire burns out of control near Reno, The Associated Press reports. Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said hundreds of firefighters were "in the thick of battle" against a blaze that has burned across thousands of acres.

"The news is not good," Hernandez said. Wind gusts of up to 82 mph were reported and a five-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 395 was closed.

Hernandez confirmed one death, but would not say it was caused by the fire until an autopsy is performed, KRNV.com reported.

Gov. Brian Sandoval has declared a state of emergency.

See more coverage at NBC station KRNV

At a press conference Thursday afternoon, fire officials said that the brush fire began around noon just north of Washoe Lake and that the cause was under investigation.

Original post: RENO, Nev. -- Fierce winds fueled a fast-moving brush fire through a valley south of Reno on Thursday, destroying at least 10 homes and threatening many more along a stretch of U.S. 395. 

At least 10 homes burned in the Washoe Area Estates neighborhood, NBC station KRNV of Reno reported. Washoe County declared a state of emergency.

Heavy smoke forced authorities to shutdown a five-mile stretch of the highway north of Washoe Lake in Pleasant Valley, about 10 miles from Reno, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported.

James Glover Ii / Reuters

A crew member from the Nevada Department of Forestry works to control the Washoe Drive fire near a home off Highway 395 in Washoe City, Nev., on Thursday.

Authorities evacuated hundreds of children from Pleasant Valley Elementary School and residents of neighboring Washoe City.

Sheriff's deputies told the Reno newspaper winds were pushing flames closer to Reno, where voluntary evacuations were issued in several neighborhoods.

Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Reno -- already delayed because of bad weather -- was cut short because of the fire. Biden was two hours late to give a speech to students at Galena High School. The vice president was forced to end his speech after 25 minutes because officials needed the high school gym as a command center for firefighters.

Winds in the area were gusting over 50 mph, The Weather Channel reported, but were expected to moderate on Friday to about 20 mph, with gusts to about 30 mph.

Winds gusts up to 82 mph were reported within a few miles of the fire, and a gust of 122 mph was recorded atop Slide Mountain, which is between the fire and Reno at the Mount Rose ski resort.

Rounding up horses
Flames up to 40 feet high raced through sagebrush, grass and pines in an area where small neighborhoods are dispersed in a rural landscape. Washoe County animal services officials were helping round up horses and other livestock for evacuation.

NBC News

A large home is destroyed by flames near Reno on Thursday.

About six flights were diverted, delayed or canceled at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport as a reult of heavy black smokein Washoe Valley, said spokesman Brian Kulpin.

The conditions were similar to those Nov. 18, when a wind-driven fire destroyed 30 homes in southwest Reno.

This post includes reporting from NBC station KRNV of Reno, msnbc.com staff and The Associated Press. 

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