RENO, Nev. – An “extremely remorseful” elderly man admitted Friday that he accidentally started a brush fire that destroyed 29 homes near Reno when he improperly discarded fireplace ashes at his home south of town, authorities said.
“He came forward on his own accord,” Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said about the man. The resulting blaze, fueled by 82 mph wind gusts, burned nearly 3,200 acres and forced the evacuation of up to 10,000 people Thursday.
“He has given statements to our investigators as well as law enforcement officers. He is extremely remorseful,” the chief said.
Investigators already had tracked the origin of the fire to a location in East Lake on the north end of the Washoe Valley, where the man lives about 20 miles south of downtown Reno.
Washoe County Sheriff Mike Haley said a formal case file will be forwarded to the district attorney next week for consideration of charges.
“The DA will have to give this case a lot of deliberation,” Haley said.
“The fact he came forward and admitted it plays a role. But so does the massive damage and loss of life,” he said. “It’s a balancing act.”
In addition to the potential for facing jail time on arson charges, the man could also be ordered to pay the cost of fighting the fire, which already totals $690,000.
Washoe County Manager Katy Simon said she expects the final bill to run into the millions of dollars.
Gov. Brian Sandoval toured the fire damaged area Friday, describing it as “horrendous, devastating.”
“There is nothing left in some of those places except for the chimneys and fireplaces,” he said.
The blaze started shortly after noon Thursday and, fueled by the wind, mushroomed to more than 6 square miles before firefighters stopped its surge toward Reno.
The strong, erratic winds caused major challenges for crews evacuating residents, Sierra Front spokesman Mark Regan said. “In a matter of seconds, the wind would shift,” he said.