By Riley Snyder
RENO, Nevada (Reuters) - The careless disposal of hot fireplace ashes by an elderly man ignited the fierce brush fire that destroyed 26 houses, prompted thousands of people to flee their homes and closed a major highway near northern Nevada's largest city, officials said on Friday.
The man, who was not publicly identified, turned himself over to authorities on Friday expressing deep remorse for the disaster he touched off the previous day, said Nancy Leuenhagen, a spokeswoman for the Washoe County manager's office.
She said investigators planned to turn the case over to the district attorney's office for possible criminal prosecution. Leuenhagen said she did not know whether the man had been placed in custody or whether his home was among those consumed by the wind-whipped blaze.
The fire's advance was halted Thursday night at the southern outskirts of Reno, keeping flames from reaching a metropolitan area of about 420,000 people. Within 24 hours a team of several hundred firefighters working with hand tools and bulldozers had managed to carve containment lines around 65 percent of the blaze's perimeter, officials said.
Most evacuees were being allowed to return, and U.S. Highway 395, the main north-south route between Reno and Nevada's capital, Carson City, was expected to reopen to traffic by midnight Friday.
Authorities said one person was found dead in the fire zone, but it was not immediately clear whether the individual was a victim of the blaze. No further details of the death were given, and no other fatalities or major injuries were reported.
The Reno Gazette Journal reported that one woman was believed to have died by suffocation in the blaze, which fire officials said has scorched an estimated 3,900 acres.
Driven by gale-force wind gusts, the blaze erupted on Thursday afternoon in the Pleasant Valley area south of Reno and prompted the evacuation of 14 communities as it roared northward over hilly, parched scrubland toward the city.
In their haste to save farm animals, authorities opened gates of livestock pens to release horses and cattle onto nearby roads so they could roam out of harm's way on their own.
In an added twist, the fire also forced Vice President Joe Biden to cut short a visit to Reno on Thursday. The high school where he spoke to students and parents was later evacuated as flames crept to within 500 yards of the building.
Reduced visibility from heavy smoke, along with fallen power lines and debris, also prompted authorities to close a 16-mile stretch of Highway 395 through most of Friday, forcing motorists from Reno to take lengthy detours in order to reach Carson City or Lake Tahoe to the south.
At least 2,000 people were still under evacuation as of midday on Friday, down from 10,000 residents urged to leave their homes in Washoe County at the height of the fire threat on Thursday, Leuenhagen said.
Sheriff Mike Haley confirmed on Friday that 26 homes were lost in the blaze, but authorities said firefighters had saved more than 800 dwellings inside the fire zone.
The fire was the latest in a string of disasters to strike in and around Reno in recent months. An Amtrak train wreck 70 miles east of the city killed six people in June.
Then in September, a gunman opened fire in a Carson City pancake house, killing four people before committing suicide. The same month, a vintage plane nose-dived near the grandstand at a Reno air race, killing 11 people.
A fire on the edge of Reno in November blackened at least 2,000 acres of suburban scrubland, damaged dozens of homes and was blamed for the death of an elderly man who suffered a heart attack and lost control of his car while fleeing with his wife.
"It is inconceivable that this community has been struck by tragedy once again," Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval told reporters Thursday night after declaring a state of emergency.
Authorities raised concerns on Friday that heavy rains forecast to hit the area later in the day could unleash mudslides in steep foothills stripped of vegetation and left unstable by back-to-back wildfires.
(Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)