Firefighters attacking the Waterfall fire Friday gained 50 percent containment, taking advantage of cloud cover and a break in the devastating afternoon winds that swept flames into Carson City and, they fear, may return today.
Emotional residents applauded the firefighters, calling them "heroes" as they continued to battle the blaze. On Thursday, they watched the fire rage out of control as all efforts to contain the flames failed.
"I think we've done everything we possibly can," said Gov. Kenny Guinn. "It looks like we've done a tremendous job on this side of the slope. It's the meanest, ugliest, most uncooperative fire."
The fire that continues to threaten the capital city has grown to the highest priority in the nation behind Alaska wildfires that continued to grow from lightning strikes, which started almost a dozen new fires. An estimated 3.2 million acres have burned in that state.
The Waterfall fire crept slightly north and closer to the Lake Tahoe Basin, growing to 7,566 acres by 11 p.m. The fire did not reach homes or businesses on Friday.
"We had a really good day today," said Commander Kim Martin, leader of the elite fire management team that took over the massive operation Friday morning.
Firefighters are bracing for heavy winds today, but slightly better moisture and lower temperatures may aid the operation.
Since Wednesday, the fire has destroyed 15 homes (six in Timberline, eight in Kings Canyon and one on South Curry Street), one commercial business and 25 outbuildings.
Friday's weather gave ground crews enough opportunity to construct a fire line north to south between Ash and Kings canyons. They also mopped up areas in the south and southeast section of the fire.
Crews will focus on keeping fire off Franktown Road to the north and out of the Lake Tahoe Basin today. Hand crews were expected to work aggressively Friday night to secure a fire line across the western front along the Tahoe Rim and pinch the fire off before it reaches the city's water source at Marlette Lake.
Officials expect to have the fire fully contained by Tuesday, if winds and weather cooperate, Martin said.
Fire crews have struggled this week with dry, windy conditions. Overly dry vegetation is acting as if it were dead, exploding as trees shot flames 200 feet in the air. The area's low humidity and afternoon winds from the west have exacerbated the disaster.
Flames Friday reached only three to four feet from the ground as a wind pattern pushed the fire back into itself, stopping it from reaching into Washoe County to the north and Lake Tahoe to the west.
"It's starting to cooperate a little more," said Mark Struble, spokesman for the Sierra Front Interagency Cooperative.
Helicopters dropped 80 hot shot fire fighting crews into a small clearing near the Lake Tahoe rim at 2 p.m., three miles from Marlette Lake. It's one of the first chances crews will have to aggressively attack the fire.
The crews may camp outside in the dirt overnight, but would likely be up all night working to construct the fire line, Struble said.
The fire reached within one and a half miles of the Tahoe Rim and within two and a half miles of Franktown Road crossing the county line only slightly into Washoe Valley.
Carson City residents dealt with a thick gray smoke as it blew down from the mountain in the afternoon. The smoke cloud spanned 25 miles wide and 50 miles from north to south as it moved north into Reno and parts of east Lake Tahoe, according to the National Weather Service.
Residents were cautioned about breathing the smoke and advised to seek treatment if needed. Masks are available at the Red Cross station at Carson High School.
An investigation to find the cause of the fire made little progress Friday. Investigators interviewed the owner of a truck that was seen near where the fire started and determined the driver had no involvement in the incident, said Sheriff Kenny Furlong. Officials are looking for a group of youths who were seen making a campfire at the well-known party spot in Kings Canyon.
Two people were arrested trying to enter evacuated areas as they sped past check points and refused to yield to officers, Furlong said.
Mandatory evacuations in Lakeview and Timberline were called off during the afternoon, but residents were cautioned not to stay in their homes overnight.
Details are slowly emerging about what unfolded early Wednesday morning when the fire started. The first sighting of the fire was made by a sheriff's deputy patrolling Goni Road Wednesday morning just before 3 a.m.
According to the Sierra Front, its first call was received at 3:14 a.m. and a crew was on-scene 36 minutes later. Carson City fire was on scene earlier, said acting Fire Chief Stacey Giomi. It took some time before ground crews could hike into the canyon, and air support couldn't reach the fire until first light.
City water supplies remained strong, with 50 percent storage levels in water tanks.
"People can go ahead and irrigate according to the (odd/even) schedule," said City Manager Linda Ritter. "But be very conservative."
Fire crews struggled to get water into the Lakeview and Timberline areas. Water tenders were brought in to supply crews. Power outages in the area played a part in water pump difficulties, officials said.
Power to Kings Canyon and most of Timberline and Lakeview was restored during the day.
Carson City Mayor Ray Masayko said he is optimistic and encouraged by the community during the emergency.
"We're a resilient community," Masayko said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime event. I hope it doesn't happen again. Carson City is showing its mettle."
Contact Jill Lufrano at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1217.