(RENO, Nev.) — An elderly man has come forward and admitted to accidentally starting a blaze that burned nearly 3,200 acres and forced the evacuation of 10,000 people in Reno, Nev., officials said Saturday.
Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said the man, who has yet to be identified, came forward Friday on his own and confessed to improperly discarding fireplace ashes outside of his home in the north end of the Washoe Valley, about 20 miles south of town.
The blaze, which started Thursday, was fueled by wind gusts of up to 82 mph and what officials are calling the state’s driest winter in 120 years, destroyed 29 homes.
“He has given statements to our investigators as well as law enforcement officers,” Hernandez said. “He is extremely remorseful.”
Washoe County Sheriff Mike Haley said the case will be forwarded to the district attorney’s office next week for consideration. The man could face arson charges that would include repayment of the cost of fighting the fire, which now stands at $690,000, but is estimated to reach totals in the millions.
“The DA will have to give this case a lot of deliberation. The fact that he came forward and admitted it plays a role, but so does the massive damage and loss of life. It’s a balancing act,” Haley said.
Hernandez estimated the fire to be 65 percent contained Friday night, thanks to calmer winds, but more than 300 firefighters and 125 support staff, including law enforcement and members of the Nevada National Guard, were still fighting the fire and checking for hot spots.
Of those evacuated, 2,000 people are still unable to return to their homes.
Highway 395 between Reno and Carson City, closed near the area where the brush fire began, was reopened late Friday night, but, according to Nevada State police, many other roads are still closed.
“The number one thing for us is public safety,” Trooper Michael Edgell said. “We’ve got dozens of power poles that have been burned, that are draped across the landscape, that are borderline dripping onto the highway.”
The forecast for rain and snow Saturday presented a new challenge to fire crews, with flooding possible in the burned areas.
Officials said the fire was almost identical to one that ripped through the area in mid-November that destroyed 30 homes and burned 2,000 acres. Fire crews were aided in controlling that blaze by snowfall.
Hernandez said crews were able to prevent the fire from spreading any further, containing it to about six square miles, but officials said it is shocking to see the amount of damage.
“You take so many things for granted,” Edgell said. “You get used to your scenery and when you drive through here, and you actually see what the fire has done that it’s just amazing to me that the fire can do so much damage.”
The evacuation center set up at Damonte Ranch High School was closed and evacuees unable to find a place to stay were provided hotel rooms by the Red Cross. One hundred people in the Reno area remain without power.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Doug Criss and Tony Marco, CNN
Jill Martin and Steve Almasy, CNN