Topaz Ranch Estate fire at 7,500 acres, burning a mile from homes in Lyon County

11:20 AM, May 24, 2012   |    comments
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By Jeff DeLong, RGJ.com

RENO -- 9:30 a.m. update: The Topaz Ranch Estates Fire has grown to 7,500 acres burned this morning, authorities said.

Sgt. Jim Halsey, of Douglas County Sheriff's Office, said fire crews and air attacks are continuing to try to contain the east side of the blaze in the Pine Nut Mountains, which is where whipping winds sent Tuesday's fire after destroying two homes and 17 structures.

The fire was roughly two miles away from a residential area in Lyon County on Wednesday. Halsey said this morning that distance is now about a mile away from the homes.

Air operations are continuing to be used to try to extinguish the flames with fire retardant and water.

A neighbor's illegal burn on Sunday is being cited as the cause of the Topaz Ranch Estates Fire. An unidentified resident exceeded permit regulations during a Sunday backyard burn. Authorities have not given specifics about what the resident was burning or how big the pile was.

The resident put the fire out on Sunday, but high winds gusting through the area on Tuesday rekindled the flames, officials said. At 2 p.m. a neighbor called 911 after seeing about five to 10 acres on fire. The winds quickly consumed thousands of acres by the evening.

Douglas County officials said they learned lessons through wildland fires in Reno recently - namely the Caughlin and Washoe Drive Fires - that they needed to declare a state of emergency as soon as possible to ensure the most resources and federal dollars.

Wednesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared the area a major fire disaster, making it eligible for federal assistance and cost-sharing with other agencies.

Tuesday's firefighting efforts alone cost $1 million, officials said.

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The backyard pile burn believed to have sparked a destructive wildfire exceeded permit limitations and was illegal, officials said Wednesday.

An unidentified Topaz Ranch Estates resident obtained a permit to burn vegetation on his property, but the blaze he set Sunday did not comply with regulations, including burning materials prohibited by law, officials said.

The blaze was extinguished after being set Sunday but apparently re-kindled in high wind Tuesday afternoon, ignited a wildfire that destroyed two homes, 17 outbuildings and charred more than 6,400 acres.

"It exceeded the scope and limitations of the burn," Douglas County Sheriff's Sgt. Jim Halsey said. Permit conditions dictate materials that can be burned as well as the size of the pile, among other things.

No one answered the door Wednesday at the Slate Road residence where neighbors said the pile burn was started and exploded out of control two days later.

Neighbor Jay Koenig said the unidentified resident was burning sagebrush and limbs Sunday morning and that firefighters responded to put the fire out, then left. Halsey could not confirm fire crews were at the scene Sunday. Chief Tod Carlini of the East Fork Fire Protection District could not be reached Wednesday.

Koenig's house survived the fire but he lost a travel trailer, a car and numerous trees to the fire. He said firefighters share some blame for not properly extinguishing the original pile burn Sunday.

That, combined with the fact the burn was set in such dry conditions in the first place, makes the destructive blaze particularly unfortunate, said Koenig, 54.

"It should never have happened in the first place," Koenig said. "It was a very avoidable, unfortunate mistake."
Koenig said detectives spent hours examining his neighbor's property Tuesday night and that one questioned him Wednesday.

The fire's cause is being jointly investigated by the sheriff's office, the state Fire Marshal's Office and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Investigators will forward their conclusions to the Douglas County District Attorney, who will determine if any criminal charges are justified, Halsey said. The man could also be vulnerable to civil lawsuits from fire victims or be assessed some fire suppression costs.

Douglas County has halted all opening burning. The same decision was made last Friday by Charles Moore, chief of the Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District.

"We're erring on the side of safety and caution," Moore said, adding that pile burning of vegetation or trash poses a particular danger at a time when vegetation is as dry as it normally is in mid-summer.

"There's a great amount of risk associated with those (activities) given the extreme amount of dryness," Moore said. "Any spark could start a major fire."

Normally, open burning is allowed in Douglas County until June 4, Carlini of the East Fork fire district said during a news conference Tuesday.

"The vast majority of people are responsible with their burning," Carlini said.

Topaz Ranch Estates resident Jim White, whose neighbor's home was destroyed by the fire, said Wednesday that in his opinion, no one should have been conducting open burning given current conditions.

"They should not have been burning but they were," White said. "I'm not going to be angry about it. It just happened."  

RGJ.com

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