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Fire crews gain upper hand on destructive Nevada blaze

By Riley Snyder and Ben Miller

RENO, Nev (Reuters) - Firefighters working to extinguish a blaze that blackened 2,000 acres of suburban scrubland and damaged dozens of homes on the edge of northern Nevada's biggest city had the fire mostly under control on Saturday, Reno city officials said.

The blaze, which prompted Nevada's governor to declare a state of emergency, was blamed for one death -- a 74-year-old man who authorities said died after he suffered a heart attack and lost control of his car while fleeing with his wife.

The so-called Caughlin Fire erupted well before dawn on Friday in the hilly, scrub-covered southwest suburbs of Reno, a metropolitan area consisting of about 420,000 people.

Whipped by erratic winds gusting to 60 miles per hour, the fire charred an estimated 2,000 acres, much of it parched cheat grass and sagebrush, as a pall of dark gray smoke and soot clung over much of the northern Nevada city.

Around 9,500 people were evacuated from homes in the area, including some in a gated community. But by Saturday afternoon the fire was 80 percent contained, and authorities said residents could begin returning home.

"Today is mop-up," said Chris Good, Reno director of neighborhood services. "There are still some hot spots where there is the potential to reignite."

The damage from the fire, which burned in middle class and affluent areas of southwest Reno, was estimated in the "multi-millions" of dollars, Good said. Dozens of structures, most of them homes, were damaged, including 32 rendered uninhabitable.

Reno resident Iva Haislip, who was out of town visiting her mother when the blaze erupted, returned to her home of 21 years to find her house intact but surrounded by charred trees and bushes. Her neighbor's windows were shattered from the heat.

"I was hysterical," she said of the moment she learned of the fire from her housekeeper, who had rescued her two cats. "You're afraid you're going to lose your home, everything you've worked for your whole life."

"I consider this to be the happiest Thanksgiving I ever lived through," she added.

Officials said the fire, which they hoped would be fully contained by Saturday evening, may have been caused when a power line fell, shooting sparks that might have ignited dry vegetation. They ruled out fires set by the homeless for warmth, or by teenagers, as causes of the blaze.

Sixteen people had been hospitalized for respiratory or cardiac illnesses on Friday, and a firefighter had suffered first- and second-degree burns, but his general condition was not immediately disclosed.

The fire was the latest in a string of northern Nevada disasters in recent months. A deadly Amtrak collision 70 miles east of Reno killed six people in June.

Later, a gunman opened fire in a Carson City pancake house in September, killing four people before committing suicide. Then, in the same month, a vintage plane nose-dived near the grand stands at a Reno air race, killing 11 people.

(Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Mary Slosson)