A Nevada Highway Patrol trooper drives past a fast-moving brush fire burns in Pleasant Valley, south of Reno, Nev., on Jan. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)
RENO, Nevada (CBS) -- Reno hasn't seen a winter this dry in more than 120 years. So residents welcomed a forecast that a storm was due to blow across the Sierra Nevada this week. Instead, as many as 10,000 found themselves fleeing their homes while howling winds gusting to 82 mph pushed a fire toward them, destroying 29 homes and torching thousands of acres.
As the fire eased Friday, residents faced another threat: the storm was expected to bring high winds and a burst of rain and snow that could cause flash flooding on the charred land.
"The weather poses a significant threat," fire commander Paul Washam said. "We've got a lot of work to do and a short time to do it. If it rains, we'll have flood concerns."
Emergency crews, meanwhile, escorted evacuees in two separate burn areas to see their houses. Officials said evacuation orders would continue -- even in areas unaffected by the fire.
Connie Cryer went to the fire response command post on Friday with her 12-year-old granddaughter, Maddie Miramon, to find out if her house had survived the flames.
"We had to know so we could get some sleep," Cryer said, adding her house was spared but a neighbor's wasn't. She had seen wildfires before, but nothing on this scale.
"There was fire in front of me, fire beside me, fire behind me. It was everywhere," she said. "I don't know how more didn't burn up. It was terrible, all the wind and the smoke."
The blaze started shortly after noon Thursday and, fueled by the wind gusts, mushroomed to more than 6 square miles before firefighters stopped its surge toward Reno. The fire was accidentally caused by an elderly man who improperly discarded fireplace ashes, said Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez. The man, who came forward Friday, was "extremely remorseful," Hernandez said.
The fire started in a valley along a highway, which was closed because the heat destroyed some of the guardrails. Those rails will need to be replaced, state officials said. The man, who was not identified, lives in that valley.
Three schools were closed Friday and about 200 customers were without electricity.
The fire held steady around 3,900 acres and was 50 percent contained. Of the roughly 10,000 people ordered to leave their homes, about 2,000 of them remained under evacuation orders.
The high, erratic winds caused major challenges for crews evacuating residents, Sierra Front spokesman Mark Regan said. "In a matter of seconds, the wind would shift," he said.
Fire officials said Thursday's fire was "almost a carbon copy" of a blaze that destroyed 30 homes in Reno during similar summer-like conditions in mid-November.
State Forester Pete Anderson said he has not seen such hazardous fire conditions in winter in his 43 years in Nevada. Reno had no precipitation in December -- the last time that happened was 1883.
An inch of snow Monday ended the longest recorded dry spell in Reno history, a 56-day stretch that prompted Anderson to issue an unusual warning about wildfire threats.
"We're usually pretty much done with the fire season by the first of November, but this year it's been nonstop," Anderson said.
Firefighters were taking advantage of a break in the weather Friday to make more progress against the fire. At least 700 people, including firefighters from California, were expected to fight the fire. Kit Bailey, U.S. Forest Service fire chief at nearby Lake Tahoe, said conditions are so dry that even a forecast calling for rain and snow might not take the Reno-Tahoe area out of fire danger.
"The scary thing is a few days of drying after this storm cycle and we could be back into fire season again," he said.