RENO - The estimated number of homes destroyed in a wind-fueled wildfire more than doubled on Saturday to a total of 32, but Gov. Brian Sandoval said it's a miracle scores more weren't lost.
A re-evaluation of the 2,000-acre burn on Saturday found much more destruction and damage than initially reported, Reno Fire Chief Mike Hernandez said.
The unusual, out-of-season blaze spread by gale-force winds and ripped through the Sierra foothills early Friday, forcing the evacuation of nearly 10,000 people. Most started returning to their homes Saturday afternoon.
"This was not only a wild land, urban-interface type fire, it was also a metro fire where we had homes that were actively burning in densely populated areas," Hernandez said.
Many families "had to leave in the middle of the night with very, very limited possessions and they are coming back to devastation, to nothing," he said. "So our hearts and prayers go out to those families."
The governor said after a helicopter tour of the area Saturday that while the loss of homes was tragic, the 400 firefighters on the lines are heroes for saving more than 4,000 houses that could have burned in the blaze investigators suspect was started by arcing power lines.
"When you see something like that, you can't help but be struck by the awesome and random power of nature," Sandoval said about the blackened path of the fire that snaked along the edge of the foothills, sometimes burning one home to the ground while neighboring houses on either side went untouched.
"It is nothing short of a miracle the amount of homes that have been saved," he said. "We're right around the corner from Thanksgiving and I think we in this community have a lot to be thankful for."
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., agreed.
"There are a lot of people we need thank that it wasn't worse than it was," he said after his tour Saturday.
Reno Mayor Bob Cashell praised the firefighters for a quick response and thanked the numerous communities - from sometimes hundreds of miles away - for dispatching crews and engines to help.
"This fire was out of control the second it started, but in a short time the first responders were there and everybody stepped up," Cashell said. "Elko, Fallon, Fernley - everyone who had a fire truck, they sent it."
Hernandez said there's no official cause yet, but all signs point to the power lines. He said investigators ruled out the possibility that teenage partiers or a homeless campfire was to blame. The fire was 80 percent contained Saturday and should be fully mopped up by the middle of next week, fire officials said.
Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., said he was impressed by the coordinated effort by so many different agencies, especially far removed from the normal summer wildfire season in Nevada.
"You don't appreciate it until you have the major metropolitan area in the northern Nevada being threatened by wildfire in late November," he said.
Kristina Wright, 22, was among the evacuees returning Saturday to her home, which was not damaged. She said she fell asleep Thursday night listening to the TV weatherman's forecast for possible snow on the valley floor where she lives on edge of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
"I thought I'd wake up to scrape my windshield not be told to evacuate because there was a fire behind my house," Wright said.
More than two miles separated some of the damaged homes as the winds with gusts in excess of 70 mph spread burning embers down the Sierra front and through a patchwork of canyons and ravines on the city's southwest side.
"I watched a house catch on fire on the ridge," said Wright, who lives in a neighborhood just below the aptly named Windy Hill about five miles south of the downtown casino district.
"It was like a tornado," she told The Associated Press. "I couldn't stand up. I couldn't even open my car door without it slamming me."
"The deputy said 'Go get your animals and call into work. Your neighborhood is next. With the way the winds are an ember could hit your roof and spark at any time," Wright said.