Fire on the mountain: Remembering Autumn Hills 20 years later
In the 20 years since the Autumn Hills fire claimed four homes at the base of Kingsbury Grade there have been bigger, more expensive fires in Douglas County.
The Bison Fire claimed more land. The TRE Fire took more structures. But neither had the potential to affect life and property more than the Autumn Hills fire, and few have caught so many so much by surprise.
Sunday, June 23, 1996, had been a hectic day for firefighters. A fire in Johnson Lane set by a welder kept them busy in the morning. Just as firefighters were clearing that blaze, a wildland fire was called out near Horseshoe Bend on the Carson River.
While firefighters were busy, two bored Foothill boys amused themselves with a pan of gasoline and some lizards.
They dipped a lizard in the pan and then set it on fire around 2 p.m. It hadn’t rained in more than a month, so the grass and sagebrush caught quickly as the lizard ran.
The first call came in at 2:15 p.m., but by that time 48 mph winds were already driving flames through the sagebrush and into the Autumn Hills subdivision.
Nearly 1,000 firefighters responded to the fire, which claimed four homes and burned 3,800 acres. More than 3,000 Foothill and Kingsbury residents were evacuated.
East Fork Deputy Chief Dave Drew was heading toward the Horseshoe Bend grass fire, when he received word that Autumn Hills was on fire.
“It was windy and dry, with a cold front coming through,” he said. “Your typical June pattern. We’d had at least two significant fires that day, one in Johnson Lane.”
Drew, who retired from the East Fork Fire District in 2009, said fire officials decided over the radio that East Fork and the Nevada Division of Forestry would respond to the fire near Kingsbury Grade, while the U.S. Forest Service would handle the Horseshoe Bend fire.
Sheridan volunteer Margaret Biggs was one of the first firefighters on the scene that blustery Sunday afternoon.
She said they deployed at a house at the corner of Autumn Hills and Quail Ridge roads.
“The wind started to blow across to the north side, and we thought perhaps we could keep it going to the north,” she said.
The Sheridan volunteers had help in the form of an NDF inmate crew that was heading to Horseshoe Bend but was diverted to the Autumn Hills fire.
Firefighter Mike Catherwood arrived with the tender and set up a portable water tank on Cary Creek, since there weren’t any hydrants in the neighborhood.
Biggs said she went into the house to close all the doors.
“When I came out was when the firestorm hit,” she said.
She said the inmate crew and volunteers took cover.
“For those few minutes when it blew through us, we hunkered down and waited until it passed,” Biggs said. “The inmate crew scattered. They were all lying flat on the pavement. It was all you could do as the firestorm continued down the hill.”
She said all the ropes on the tank melted, and the tank collapsed eliminating the water source.
Drew said the winds at the base of the Carson Range were fierce.
“Real unusual weather occurs next to the escarpment when we have dry cold fronts,” he said. “The winds will ride high and then go down to the surface and bounce back up.”
When there isn’t any wind, fire will travel uphill. But that day, there were 48 mph downslope winds forcing the fire down toward Foothill Road.”
One home was already burning when fire crews arrived. At that point the wind lifted and the fire headed up the mountain.
“Shortly after I arrived, we got a bunch of spot fires to the east that were telegraphing that the wind was coming back,” Drew said. “That was the biggest problem that whole day. We were deploying to protect structures and trying to keep the fire on the hillside. It was everything anybody could do to save one house. I think one guy had a helmet blow off his head. We never did find it.”
The fire went back and forth, burning north of Kingsbury Grade and then up the hill. Drew said a C-130 fire tanker made a pass over the fire, but determined the winds were too unpredictable for it to be useful.
“They managed to protect the house, then the winds were back and the fire just exploded again and went another direction.”
“It ran down the hill like crazy and then turned and went back up,” he said. “We’d get spot fires ahead of it.”
Drew hesitates to call what happened at Autumn Hills a firestorm.
“It was really an area ignition, where everything just goes up at once,” he said.
Autumn Hills residents Howard and Kregg Herz lost their 92-year-old home and the largest numismatic library in the state.
Herz moved the family home to Carson Valley from Reno in 1980 and had lived there for 12 years when it burned. They also lost a guest house on the property.
Residents Jay and Jolaine Johnson owned one of the other homes that burned in the fire. Both families rebuilt.
Ruhenstroth volunteer John Babcock said he and his wife were at Topaz Lake when he received a call for the fire near Horseshoe Bend.
He said the Engine 10 crew including Chief Terry Hughes, Doug Johnson and Mark Gonzales was staged above Jake’s Hill when they saw the smoke plume rising across the Valley.
“I had the binoculars and I turned 30 degrees, and went ‘holy cow,’” he said.
The crew started across the Valley before the call came.
“When we got into the subdivision, it was pretty smoky,” Babcock said. “It was a wind-driven fire, and we were deployed for structure protection. We were getting the engine in place, pulling hose and starting to do some defensive tactics when the wall of flame came at us. We hit the pavement and it stopped. That was a blessing because we had our hands full.”
Johnson said the fire engine was a 1958 American LaFrance, and he remembers flaming embers flying through the open cab.
“We had to stop the rig to put it into the pump gear,” Johnson said. “By the time we got stopped, the fire was barreling down on us. We had to cut our lines and get out of there. The fire was really moving. I remember looking up the mountain and seeing three houses fully engulfed.”
Both Babcock and Johnson remember being hit by at least one load of fire retardant from a bomber.
“There was a powder blue house, with white trim,” Babcock said. “By the time the retardant came down, it was red, white and blue. I remember the homeowner standing there in shock, and I told him ‘that’s the best color you will ever see on your house.’”
The fire burned north of Kingsbury Grade, forcing a mixed company led by East Fork Paramedic Chief Don Stangle to move twice as the flames burned over the highway. The most serious casualty was K-MTN videographer Mike Conway, who received serious burns when he was caught in the bed of a forest service pickup that stalled during the retreat.
That group, the Ruhenstroth engine and several others spent the night at the top of Kingsbury Grade to defend the homes there in case the fire continued up the mountain.
“We were hoping and praying the fire wouldn’t come at us up on North and South Benjamin,” Babcock said. “We spent the night up there, and fortunately the next day it rained and snowed. You couldn’t hope for a better blessing.”