The Waterfall Fire Ten Years Later

Ten years ago today, July 14, 2004, one of the worst wildfires in Carson City’s recent memory began. A rogue campfire in the hills above the Kings Canyon waterfall sparked a blaze that swept through the mountains west of town. It came roaring down Kings Canyon first, destroying 9 homes before firefighters could push it back. Then it turned north and steamrolled through the Timberline neighborhood, burning another 8 houses. Firefighters stopped it before it could reach Lakeview and any lower into the valleys, but it still burned in the mountains for days. In all, 8,700 acres burned and 18 homes were lost, and the hills were scarred black for months afterward.

I took photos during and after the fire, and this year I went back and revisited some of those views to see how much healing has been done in the last 10 years. This view from Curry Street shows the fire before and after it swept through the hills here, blackening everything. Nowadays, the vegetation has completely recovered.

The furthest south the flames reached was Clearview. Back then, Curry was an out of the way road so the fire didn’t threaten much. Now the Galaxy Theaters sits right next to where the flames were turned back by a fire break. The fire break, and the scar from the flames, can still be seen.

The entire hillside along Curry was blackened.

Hardly any buildings were lost along Curry. This shop was one. It was rebuilt just a few months later and now houses The Wheel House.

The smoke plume started out small, but by midday downtown was coated in a thick blanket of smoke. Nobody quite knew how bad this fire was going to be, and the sun being blotted out didn’t help any. Carson Middle School was I believe the evacuation point for many of the people who were driven out of their homes by the fire. Most of them were lucky enough to be able to go back, a few weren’t.

The sides of C Hill burned so intensely that it looked like a moonscape.

Yet, the firefighters still were able to save the houses next to the hill. This photo was taken two weeks after the fire. The trees on the left didn’t even get scorched. Not one house on C Hill burned down.

On the back side of C Hill, and up Kings Canyon, is where the flames were most intense.

The morning of the 14th, firefighters were quickly overwhelmed by the ferocity of the fire, fueled by dry brush and strong winds.

This entire hillside was burned to ash, but nature has regrown nicely. A couple of burnt twigs still remain.

The houses at the top of Kings Canyon were hit worst by the fire. Some of them were lost completely, but firefighters were able to have a few victories and save some of them.

The parking lot at the top of Kings Canyon was a major staging area to try to keep the fire away from populated areas, but by the time it got here it was too intense.

The fire burned fast and hot, leaving the tops of the trees undamaged. Here at the trailhead to the infamous waterfall, nearly every tree had to be removed later, but a few did survive.

Ted Stokes’ home, the highest one on the hill, was one of the first to be lost. Rebuilding started the summer after the fire. But what was once a nice wooded lot is now just sagebrush.

Enough time has passed that there are probably a lot of newcomers who weren’t around for the fire. But for those of us who were in town then, we remember the savagery and power of this fire. With a couple of dry winters in a row, conditions are bad up in the hills again this year. We all need to be careful and make sure there’s never a repeat of the Waterfall Fire. It would be nice to be able to call it the “last” bad wildfire for a long time.


  1. Do you have pictures of Lakeview and Timberline? And what’s up with “The Boy Scout Without Trees” Mike Otterstrom. Where has the past 10 years taken him after his Eagle Scout reforestation project

  2. one day maybe someone will come forward and report who really started this. First it was some teens than the story got changed to transients. Don’t think so. Someone covered the facts up here

  3. I still am ashamed at the Fire Departments on not handling this fire when it started early that morning. This fire could have been put out if the Fire Departments fought the fire, instead of trying to figure out who’s jurisdiction it was to fight this fire. FIGHT THE FIRE, SAVE THE WILDERNESS AND HOMES THEN DECIDE WHO WILL PAY FOR THE FIGHTING OF THE FIRE. THE TAXPAYERS PAY FOR THE FIREFIGHTERS, IS THAT WHAT THEY ARE PAID TO DO, FIGHT FIRES.

  4. I was one of the firefighters that was contracted in to fight this fire. Amazing to see the recovery. Would love to one day come out and see it first hand

  5. Thank you for this. Amazing to see how fast burnable cover grows again, now in 2016 we have The Shooting Fire in almost the same place. But this time they’re succeeding in putting it down fast. Thank you firefighters and those who budget for crews & equipment.

  6. While this is 5 years after this article was posted, I was reminded of this fire because of the lightning caused fire in town this afternoon. I thought about calling 911 but the smoke was so pronounced that it was unmistakable to anyone who breathed through their nose.
    I flashed back to the waterfall fire, and the night before it was reported to have started.

    I remember the evening prior to when news reports say this fire started. I was working at the Mountain Medical center in the old Nevada Appeal building on Bath St. It’s a pulmonary office that does sleep studies (something only longtime residents of Carson City would recall).
    I went in at my then normal start time, and I noticed that the smoke was heavy, and was like a blanket on that part of town.
    I figured that it was a fire, and so pronounced that it was impossible to miss it or mistake it for a bad bbq.
    I dismissed calling 911 because it was just too much smoke to ignore. Over a thousand homes were in the area below the fire, where the smoke had settled.

    The next morning I learned that the fire was mistakenly pronounced to have started earlier that morning.
    I was stunned and disappointed with myself because I didn’t call. From that point forward I swore I’d never ignore the smell of smoke again.
    While the fire wasn’t my fault, I have often wondered over the years how much I could have stopped from happening had I called.
    I’ve further wondered why it wasn’t caught that night. There was no way so much smoke could be missed by so many people.

    So… all this to say….if you smell smoke that’s not the smell of a bbq, call 911.
    No matter how insignificant it may seem to you, you could be the one who prevents a nightmare like the waterfall fire from 2004, or the Aspen fire in 1997.

    I did wind up calling 911 this afternoon after I remembered 2004.

    They were aware, and onsite.

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