Tahoe Nugget #179:
Great Reno Fire of 1879
March 4, 2010
It's early March and snow lies deep in the mountains, but spring often brings
gusty down slope winds to the Sierra Front. The phrase "Washoe Zephyr" that Mark Twain made famous in his book Roughing It, was coined for the strong local wind that blows down the
east canyons of the Sierra Nevada. Not only did the Washoe Zephyr wreak havoc with miners' tents and cabins on the Comstock, as soon as the first Catholic Church was built in Virginia City, it
was torn from its foundation and smashed to kindling by this devilish wind.
Reno Evening Gazette article headline.
Early on the morning of March 2, 1879, the Washoe Zephyr was blowing harder in Reno than any resident ever remembered. At 5:55 a.m. that
Sunday morning, the city's fire alarms erupted in warning. Immediately, a dread came over the citizens of Reno. It was everyone's worst nightmare to fight a fire in such a wind.
Sparks flying from a poorly constructed stovepipe had set some stacked wood on fire behind the Railroad Hotel. Mrs. Ann Hogan was the first
to see the blaze. She ran to her backyard where a barrel of wash water stood near the burning wood, but either through excitement or
weakness the elderly woman was unable to lift it. She yelled, "fire! fire!" until her sons arrived, but realizing they couldn't stop the rapidly
spreading flames, they ran to the firehouse and rang the emergency bell to wake the sleeping community and call them to action.
Windy conditions persisted long after the Reno fire was out.
Minutes later hundreds of bleary-eyed citizens were rushing to the scene, but by then the shrieking wind had fueled the flames into an inferno.
Soon another hotel had flames licking at the roof. Women and children helped with bucket brigades and even the ostracized Chinese and
American Indians manned the hand-pumped engines. Unfortunately, before even one bucket of water was thrown on the blaze, the Reno
Lumber Yard on the other side of town was catching fire from wind-blown sparks.
Smokey silhouette during controlled burn at Lake Tahoe.
Pushed by the powerful wind, the wall of fire raced across the city. Firemen on the scene brought their hoses so close to the flames that their
hair singed, but the gale force winds blew the water into a worthless spray before it reached the buildings. Reno's fire chief was knocked
unconscious by a falling board, but his men needed no order to fight this blaze. It was a battle of desperation.
The howling wind fed the flames and scattered burning cinders throughout the city. It quickly became clear that the town was doomed, so
residents ran to save what few personal things could grab from their homes and businesses. The firemen remained at their posts and could only pray that their own houses might be saved.
In early June 2007, a 940-acre wildfire nearly destroyed the town of Coleville, California, south of Reno. Three firefighters died in the wind-fueled blaze.
Blowing out of the southwest, the fierce wind spread destruction to the northeast of Reno. Burning embers were blown out to a ranch nearly
three miles away. The firestorm burned through wood, brick and iron. So-called "fireproof" buildings withered under the fiery assault. The thick
walls and iron doors absorbed so much heat that the merchandise inside burst into flames. Most businesses were a total loss. Banks,
pharmacies, law offices, saloons and hotels were gutted. The railroad yards were also lost in the conflagration. The flames spread so quickly
many homeowners escaped with only the clothes on their back.
By sunset the fire in Reno was out. There was little left to burn. The devastation was swift and nearly total. Five lives were lost. Ten square
blocks were smoking ruins. Hundreds of homes and scores of businesses were in ashes. Total damages exceeded $1 million, but only about 25 percent of the property was insured.
Despite the tremendous losses, the rebuilding of Reno began the very next day. The ashes had barely cooled before they were shoveled away
and new foundations built. The Nevada Legislature introduced a bill appropriating $10,000 to aid the homeless. It was on the governor's desk and signed into law in twenty minutes.
Over the next few months, Nevada's "Biggest Little City" rose like a Phoenix from the ashes. The town has never looked back.
Reno sprawls out in western Nevada.