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Owner upset he was kept from saving home, dog
Jeff DeLong

October 1, 2004


When high winds blasted the Andrew Fire through vulnerable neighborhoods south of Reno, firefighters quickly realized they had a dangerous battle on their hands.

The region's second major wildfire within six weeks chewed through kiln-dry vegetation, consuming six homes in a matter of hours.

"We had our hands full from the very beginning," Marty Scheuerman, division chief for the Reno Fire Department, told the Washoe County Commission on Tuesday.

"This happened so fast, it was hit and run," Scheuerman said. "We never got to the point where we could meet the fire on our own terms."

Sitting in the audience Tuesday was Gary Schmidt, who isn't happy with what went down the day of the fire. Schmidt lost his home, several vehicles and a cherished dog. Schmidt is mad authorities wouldn't allow him access to his home before it burned. He insists he could have made a difference.

"I think I would have saved the house and everything in it," Schmidt said. "Without a doubt I would have saved my dog."

The debate over when homeowners should be allowed access to threatened homes isn't new and has been played out at the scene of destructive fires, floods and other emergencies across the country.

Fire and sheriff's officials told commissioners Tuesday their top priority is to ensure lives are not put in jeopardy and that firefighters can do their job without interference from either people who live in the area or sightseers.

"There was a very fast-paced, crisis environment," Capt. Marshall Emerson of the Washoe County Sheriff's Office said of the Andrew Fire.

Schmidt, owner of the Reindeer Lodge on Mount Rose Highway, was at the lodge when the fire started on the windy afternoon of Aug. 25. He tried to reach the home he shared with Mary Bartell off Andrew Lane, but was repeatedly denied access to the neighborhood by deputies.

Schmidt, who has demanded public records of decisions made that day, is angry that some of his neighbors were allowed to roam freely through the fire area while he was denied entry.

"I'm frustrated because I'm not getting answers. I want answers," Schmidt said.

Although he acknowledged the wood shake roof he had planned on someday replacing was responsible for his home catching fire, Schmidt said he could have saved his structure had he been allowed to try. He said he had hoses and other equipment ready to fight fire.

At a minimum, Schmidt said, he could have saved his dog and a lot of valuable property - including a collection of rock -concert posters the former concert promoter said might have been worth as much as $300,000.

"No. 1, there should be some distinction between a property owner and a tourist. They shouldn't be lumped together," Schmidt said. "You can't just randomly deny people access to their property to defend their property.

"If they deny you the opportunity to defend your property, they damn well better defend it for you."

Scheuerman points to last year's devastating fires in Southern California. Some people stayed at their homes then to protect the structures and some died doing so, Scheuerman said.

"From a firefighter's perspective, human life is the No. 1 priority. It's primary," Scheuerman said.

Frustration such as Schmidt's is understandable, Scheuerman said.

"I wish there was some magic solution that would allow people to feel they have done all they can on their own," Scheuerman said, adding that the fire's toll could have been far worse.

"We could have had a lot of structures burned, a lot of lives lost. We didn't."

Copyright (c) Reno Gazette-Journal. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co., Inc. by NewsBank, inc.

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