RENO — A deadly blaze that killed an elderly woman and burned five square miles south of Reno was caused by improper disposal of fireplace ashes and was most likely accidental, fire investigators concluded.
Lyle Teuscher, 58, told investigators he had disposed of the ashes in a metal trailer outside his Washoe Drive home about four days before the Jan. 19 fire erupted.
According to the Reno Gazette-Journal, Teuscher said he always checked the temperature of ashes and “thought all the ashes were cold and safe enough to deposit in the trailer for later dumping,” the report said.
Property damage from the blaze that destroyed 28 homes was estimated at $4.5 million.
The report was released Wednesday by the Reno Fire Department. Fire Marshal Joan Presley said a copy was forwarded last week to the Washoe County district attorney’s office to determine whether charges are warranted.
June Hargis, 93, lived in a studio apartment near where the blaze broke out and died of smoke inhalation.
Teuscher was not home when the fire started. Investigators said he “was very remorseful and embarrassed, and he was very concerned with the fire victims” while being interviewed.
Based on physical evidence and witness accounts, the report concluded the fire’s cause was “most likely accidental” and associated with improper disposal of fireplace ashes. Investigators were able to rule out downed power lines as a cause.
“Witness statements indicate that the first fire was seen in the grassy area and the metal trailer adjacent to the shed” at Teuscher’s home, the report said. “The fire was then described to have been seen in the adjacent five-acre lot. Subsequent fire spread was intense and was aided by heavy, erratic winds and extremely dry flashy fuels.”
Wind gusts that day approached 80 mph, and flames quickly spread through grass and brush made tinder dry by lack of rain and snow.
“Your recipe is there. Given the right conditions, the result of a careless act can be catastrophic,” Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez told the newspaper. “This demonstrates what can occur on a very grand scale.”
The fire came two months after another disastrous Reno-area blaze. The Nov. 18 fire, started by power lines arcing in high wind, burned nearly 1,900 acres, destroyed 26 homes and caused $7.6 million in damage. One man died of a heart attack while evacuating.
The two rare winter season blazes demonstrate the presence of a year-round fire hazard, Hernandez said.
“It speaks to how fire season never really ended,” Hernandez said. “We need to start preparing to handle these types of events year-round. It’s not just a summer problem anymore.”