RENO, Nev. — A cloud of grayish-white smoke settled over upscale homes and horse pastures on the edge of Reno on Friday as firefighters from across Nevada came close to taming a sudden wildfire that sent 16 people to area hospitals for treatment, many for smoke inhalation, and destroyed at least 20 houses.
Authorities said the worst was likely over, but warned a change in the furious northern winds could refuel the sprawling fire that sent thousands of families fleeing from their homes in the middle of the night and blanketed the region's mountain roads in amber flames. A 74-year-old man died of a heart attack while trying to leave his home.
Health officials urged residents to stay inside and reduce physical activity, warning that the dust and smoke were adding to pollution levels in the affected regions and downwind neighborhoods.
Growing snow flurries late Friday afternoon stroked hopes that the remaining showers of ember and ash would die down quickly.
At least 400 firefighters from as far as 260 miles away flocked to Reno early Friday as multiple fires roared from the Sierra Nevada foothills in northwestern Nevada and spread to the valley floor. Police went house-to-house, pounding on doors and urging residents to evacuate in the dark of the night.
"The whole mountain was on fire," said Dick Hecht, who said when he escaped from his home with his wife, it was so windy he could barely stand. "It was so smoky, you couldn't hardly see."
The couple tried to return to their home before morning, but they were turned back by high winds and erupting flames. As they made their way back down the mountain roads, flames burned less than 40 yards from their vehicle.
Gusts of up to 60 mph grounded firefighter helicopters and made it difficult for firefighters to approach Caughlin Ranch, the affluent subdivision bordering pine-forested hills where the fire likely began after 12:30 a.m.
The strong winds combined with area's dry terrain helped the fire spread from 400 acres to 2,000, or more than 3 square miles. Firefighters said their efforts spared 4,000 homes, but that the disaster would likely cost multi-millions of dollars.
The cause of the blaze isn't known, but a downed power line or homeless encampments in the area might be to blame, said Fire Chief Mike Hernandez.
In all, nearly 10,000 people were sent from their homes into the spreading heat. The wind gusts were comparable to the Santa Ana winds that often aggravate and spread wildfires in the hills surrounding Los Angeles, officials said.
"The wind is horrific," said Reno spokeswoman Michele Anderson. "We just watched a semi nearly blow over on the freeway."
John and Maggie Givlin were among those watching a television at the shelter at Reno High School Friday morning, scanning the screen for details on whether the home they left behind was safe. They already were preparing to flee when a police officer knocked on their door at about 1:30 a.m.
"I smelled smoke and got out of bed and the electricity was out," said John Givlin, a retired civil engineer who has lived there about eight years. "I looked out the front window and saw the glow over the hill before us."
He and his wife made their way out of their home with a flashlight. Outside, flames billowed in every direction.
More than 150 people had filled two shelters set up at area high schools by midmorning.
"The people are in a state of shock and are hanging in there," Gov. Brian Sandoval said.
More than 4,000 NV Energy customers lost power as poles and electrical wires were scorched and knocked down, said spokeswoman Faye Andersen. Utility workers were not being allowed into the fire area.
Reno Mayor Bob Cashell said evacuees could start returning to their homes at noon Saturday. Cashell said a number of local hotel-casinos were offering discounted rooms to displaced residents.
"These next 24 hours, with all the power lines down and everything else, it is still a very, very dangerous area," he said.
School buses were on standby to help with evacuations. At least 90 schools were closed for the day to clear the roads of school traffic and make way for emergency workers.
The U.S. Postal Service suspended delivery to the area for the day and the state high school athletic association moved its football playoffs from Friday night to Monday.
Associated Press writers Martin Griffith in Reno and Michelle Rindels, Cristina Silva and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas contributed to this report.