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With damaging Reno fire contained and evacuees home, focus increasingly on man who started it
RENO, Nev. (AP) ' The wildfire that destroyed 29 homes near Reno is contained. Thousands of evacuees are back home. And the family of the woman found dead says there's no point in prosecuting the remorseful man who accidentally started it.
Fire officials declared the blaze contained Saturday after a storm brought precipitation that the region hasn't seen in months. All evacuations were lifted and U.S. 395 reopened through the 3,200-acre fire zone.
But in addition to two inches of rain, the storm also brought another challenge for emergency workers. Officials fear its potential for causing flooding in burned areas, after one of the driest winters in Reno history.
"I'm confident we'll be able to respond successfully if necessary," Washoe County Manager Katy Simon said, adding that hydrologists and officials were monitoring the situation.
The blaze erupted shortly after noon on Thursday and raced quickly through the dry countryside, propelled by wind gusts of 82 mph. At its height, the fire forced evacuation calls for some 10,000 people.
The blaze was very similar to a wildfire that destroyed 30 homes in Reno in mid-November.
June Hargis, 93, was found dead in a studio apartment next to her daughter's home in Washoe Valley, where the fire started. Washoe County Sheriff Mike Haley said her cause of death has not been established, so it's not known if it was fire related. No other fatalities or major injuries were reported.
Her family said Saturday that there was no point in prosecuting the man who admitted accidentally starting it by improperly discarding fireplace ashes outside his home.
Authorities have described man, whose name was not released, as being extremely remorseful.
Haley said that prosecutors will have to give the case a lot of deliberation. "The fact he came forward and admitted it plays a role. But so does the massive damage and loss of life," he said Friday. "It's a balancing act."
Hargis's son, Jim Blueberg, 68, told The Associated Press Saturday that he didn't think filing criminal charges against the elderly man "would do any good."
"The man had the courage to come up and say he did this. He's remorseful. I think he's punished himself enough. It was a silly, stupid mistake to make, there's no doubt about that. But I just want him to know I forgive him, and my heart goes out to him," he said.
His sister, Jeannie Watts, 70, had returned home from an errand to find the apartment next door and a barn with three horses inside engulfed in flames. She agreed that there was probably no need to file charges against the man.
"What good is that going to do? Everything is already gone," Watts said.
"He'll pay the rest of his life for that," she added.
Watts said it took only about 15 minutes for her three-bedroom farmhouse to burn down, though the fire reached her mother's apartment and the barn first. She said her mother appeared to be mentally alert when she last saw her.
"Before I got home, my son told her, 'Get your stuff and get out of here,'" Watts told the AP. "She said to him, 'Well, I can smell smoke but I can't see any fire,' and she went back inside. She probably suffocated from the smoke because it was so thick."
She said that when she got home, she shouted: "Where's my mom? Where's my mom?"
"The firefighters didn't know," she said. "Later, an official came to me and said, 'Yes, she was in (the burned studio).' Then they called the coroner. I was just crying and screaming. I still can't believe it."
Blueberg said the death of their mother comes after his sister had been through "one hard knock after another" in recent years.
The fire left her financially strapped, with virtually no earthly possessions, he said. "She told me the other day, 'All I have is my purse, that's all I have,'" he said.
She and her husband, Pat, met with an insurance agent on the property. In addition to the destroyed buildings, three horses in her barn died, though firefighters rescued all five dogs from her home.
"My stomach is up in the air," Watts said. "I want to cry and I can't. I want to say, 'Why us? Why anybody? Why does anything like this have to happen to anybody?"
Associated Press writers Scott Sonner in Reno, Michelle Rindels in Las Vegas and Sandra Chereb in Carson City contributed to this report.