Between 100 and 200 homes were threatened at one time on Tuesday in the Topaz Ranch Estates about 50 miles southeast of Lake Tahoe after the fire broke out about 1:45 p.m. — possibly after a controlled burn conducted on residential land rekindled in winds gusting up to 40 mph, authorities said.
Authorities had earlier stated that at least seven homes had burned.
Douglas County Sheriff's Sgt. Jim Halsey said no homes were in immediate danger as of 9:45 p.m. Tuesday. But officials recommended that as many as 40 homes voluntarily evacuate as a precaution.
"Luckily the fire is kind of moving back up into the hills away from homes but the wind shifts around here and could move back down," Halsey said after the fire had burned more than 5 square miles of mostly sage brush and juniper.
Three air tankers and three helicopters were assisting about 450 firefighters battling the blaze, which sent up huge plumes of smoke and had burned an estimated 4,400 acres by Tuesday night.
Winds were steady throughout Tuesday, gusting throughout the day across the region that has seen very little moisture all winter, leaving vegetation dry and extremely flammable.
Halsey said the fire had burned less than 10 acres when crews arrived on the scene but "with that wind it just took off and was growing like gangbusters."
"It shot across the valley real fast," said Diana Richardson, 69. The disabled woman said she and her husband were "just sitting here minding our own business" when they first noticed flames halfway up a hill near their house in Topaz Ranch Estates. "It was scary."
Gov. Brian Sandoval said he has not declared a state of emergency but has asked for federal assistance grants for fire victims.
"We'll do whatever it takes," he said during an evening briefing at the fire command post in southern Douglas County. "We're throwing everything we have at this."
Lisa Ross, spokeswoman for the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center, said there was no estimate for containment of the fire.
Betty Hathaway, 52, said it started behind her home in the foothills of the Pine Nut mountains and that a house two doors down "completely burned down."
"It was just a wall of fire," she said. "It is unbelievable my house did not burn down."
Hathaway said she boxed up five kittens to drive them to safety along with two dogs and two horses but one of the horses was spooked and wouldn't load into the trailer.
"Some guy named Jeff came out of nowhere and helped walk the horse down the road to a safe place," she said.
A hiker telephoned 911 to report he was trapped in the hills near the Lyon-Douglas county line about 3:30 p.m. He was able to reach his car where he sought shelter in heavy smoke, surrounded by fire, before a sheriff's deputy located him about 4 p.m. and was able to escort him to safety before 4 p.m.
The National Weather Service forecast called for westerly winds between 10 and 20 mph, with gusts as high as 30 mph overnight. Windy conditions were expected to diminish somewhat Wednesday with winds forecast at 5 to 15 mph.
Halsey said officials suspect that a permitted residential burn in the area was extinguished, but may have rekindled. He said the cause remained under investigation.
Todd Carlini, fire chief for the Douglas County-East Fork Fire Protection District, said they hoped to establish a cause of the fire in the next day or so. He said local residents are allowed to conduct open burning of weeds or brush through June 4 but they are required to check with authorities ahead of time to see if windy or dry conditions are safe.
"The vast majority of people are responsible with their burning," he said. He said neither Tuesday nor Monday would have been good days to burn but that it could have smoldered longer than that.
Associated Press writer Scott Sonner in Reno contributed to this report.