Nancy Range’s fingers gripped the steering wheel.
As she followed the taillights of her husband’s old pickup truck, she faked serenity, driving away from the only home her son has ever known.
She did not want to upset Brogan.
But this fire was different.
Other fires had come close, many following the same path over Peavine Peak, a striking slope with two summits towering nearly 4,000 feet over Reno.
In the winter, the snow-covered peak looked like a postcard. But there were summers when wildfires left the miles of open space and sagebrush behind the Ranges’ house a scorched charcoal gray.
She knew in the minutes before they left. She had rushed back in the house for her wedding ring. Her husband’s fearful and frustrated voice filled the smokey air as the heat from the Poeville Fire pressed against her face and body.
“We have to leave now,” he said. “Now. Now.”
Earlier that afternoon, she and her husband, John Range, looked at a little plume of smoke through binoculars as Brogan ate leftover chicken and pasta at the kitchen table.
It was June 27, and Nancy went upstairs and packed a few clothes as a precaution if evacuation orders kept them in a hotel for a couple of nights.
But it was a foolish mistake to go about this day like there would be a tomorrow full of routines like leftovers for lunch.
Now, with the flames pushing forward like a bright red and orange wall, Nancy thought about the boxes of pictures inside the house she planned to put into albums for Brogan.
She thought of all the times Brogan, now 22, sat on the front porch swing.
“Please, please save my house,” Brogan said to two firefighters spraying water on sagebrush in his neighbor’s yard.
He said it from the back seat of his mother’s white Pontiac Grand Am. The windows were rolled up and the firefighters were hundreds of yards away. They couldn’t hear him.
He was calmer than Nancy expected.
He watched intently, turning his head to look out every window as she drove down the dirt road past the neighbor’s yard, where six peacocks and a donkey named Donner lived.
Brogan loved to feed Donner carrots and apples, hanging his arms over the fence. For his 22nd birthday in January, he asked the neighbors for 22 peacock feathers. He kept the colorful quills in a tall vase on the porch.
As the Poeville Fire surged closer, Donner was led to a nearby warehouse parking lot. The gates were left open so the peacocks could fend for themselves.
Whipped by unpredictable winds that topped 50 mph, the fire spread east across Peavine to North Reno and threatened thousands of homes.
It lunged closer to Brogan’s house, a two-story log home with a red tin roof.
Comforted by consistency
The world isn’t always easy or kind to a person with autism.
That’s why this two and a half acres on Meyers Avenue four miles from downtown Reno was an ideal place for Brogan. The property backed up to BLM land. If Brogan wandered, he was safe.
The COVID-19 pandemic had changed so much for Brogan, but home was a constant.
He hadn’t been to his job at United Cerebral Palsy in three months. He missed sorting donated clothes, taking out the trash and sweeping for $3 an hour.
Before the shutdown, he met once a week with friends with similar disabilities. They ate frozen yogurt and went to the movies and the bowling alley.
Nancy and John built their lives around keeping Brogan safe.
Brogan was born in the winter of 1998, after a normal pregnancy. He stopped hitting milestones around age 2, but for years experts disregarded Nancy’s concerns that Brogan was different.
It wasn’t until kindergarten that the Ranges finally received an official diagnosis.
Nancy drove to the other side of town to make sure Brogan was in the best schools with teachers who were dedicated to working with a kid with autism.
And he thrived, learning to read.
But after a series of missteps by the school district over Brogan’s education, Nancy started homeschooling in the 6th grade. They sat together learning at the antique dining table that had been in John’s family for generations.
At night Brogan watched all three news stations in the living room. He switched between channels to catch every weather forecast.
At 7:30 p.m., without fail, it was “Wheel of Fortune.” Brogan guessed what color dress and shoes Vanna would wear. His parents played along too, shouting out colors.
In his upstairs bedroom, Brogan listened to music for hours to get through his insomnia. He had all 40 Kidz Bop CDs, albums filled with children singing pop songs.
His room is also where he kept his huge collection of American flags. Most came from the Dollar Tree, where store clerks remembered to hold back a few for Brogan when a new shipment arrived.
Everyone knew Brogan was particular about his flags. They must be silky to properly blow in the wind. When they got wrinkled, Nancy ironed them.
Brogan placed flags around his yard in holes his dad drilled in posts and in the ground. When the rods broke off, he kept the flags in the dresser next to a window looking out on Peavine and the eventual path of the Poeville Fire.
Every day at 4 p.m., Brogan raced outside with a flag to wave to a freight train on the tracks that split his backyard from miles of open space. Conductors tooted the train whistle when they saw Brogan waving his flag.
When a new train driver failed to sound the horn, Brogan returned inside and announced, “He’s a dud.”
A few years ago, the afternoon train screeched to a stop. A man climbed down from the train and walked toward the house. “We see your son out here every day and wanted to give him something,” the conductor said.
He gave Brogan a black metal railroad lantern. It emitted the brightest white glow and lit up the desert at night.
That lantern stayed on the back porch the day the fire came.
The train conductor is one many people Brogan charmed.
His goofy smile is inviting. His high-pitched voice fills with excitement.
When he was little, Brogan learned giving compliments got good results.
“I like your dress or is it a skirt? It’s a dress. Oh, I like your dress,” he says in a genuine way, as if he’s surprised the wearer didn’t announce it herself.
He can’t cross the street by himself, but he remembers the name, birthday and favorite color of every person he has ever met. He knows every employee at the stores near his house. When Nancy takes him shopping, he spends hours catching up with as many as he can.
John, 71, worries about what will happen to Brogan.
“Ask any parent with a kid with disability, we live fearing what happens to our child when we can’t take care of them,” he said.
“Nancy was making the albums so he could remember us one day,” John said. “But I’m sure he will always remember us, even without the pictures.”
From his father’s eyes
Brogan was asleep when John first saw smoke on the top of Peavine. By then, the flames were still miles away.
He pulled out the hose and laid it straight across the backyard. He thought he might spray down the house to keep it safe from flying embers.
But he went about his day, checking on the tomatoes he and Brogan had planted and stacked firewood around to keep out the squirrels.
He made a quick trip to the grocery store.
When he got back, a fire official was parked in his yard. He reassured John support was coming.
John didn’t worry. He was meticulous about defensive space, tying sagebrush to the back of his truck and yanking the desert shrubs out by the roots as he pushed on the gas.
“Why don’t you plant some trees?” friends asked, but he knew this was the desert and the way to keep his home safe from fire was to keep the yard bare.
Watching the house burn down
John watched in the review mirror as Nancy and Brogan followed closely behind, driving away from their house.
It was 32 years ago after a divorce when he bought the log cabin and property. Back then there were no neighbors.
When he met Nancy in 1988, both were casino dealers at Boomtown. She too fell in love with the views.
And even when the power was turned off and a sheriff’s officer knocked on their door announcing a voluntary evacuation, they expected to soon return home.
“Where are the firetrucks the fireman said were coming?” John thought as he left.
John pulled over onto North Virginia Street and parked along with others on the side of the road. Nancy got out of her car to shield Brogan from overhearing conversations she was having with scared neighbors.
John climbed a small hill. From there he could see his house.
A small flame shot up from his roof, followed by a fireball.
He looked away and walked back down the hill.
“I couldn’t watch anymore,” he said.
It’s all gone
“When are we going home?” Brogan asked as soon as they got a hotel room downtown for the night.
Nancy didn’t answer.
It wasn’t until the next morning after Brogan asked countless times about going home that Nancy tried to explain.
“Do you remember our house burned up?” she said.
“I know our house is still there,” Brogan responded.
“He’s so visual he will have to see it to understand,” Nancy told John.
Two days later they drove back to Meyers Avenue and went back up the dirt road. All six peacocks had returned. Brogan was quiet.
There was nothing left of the house beyond twisted melted and gray ash.
Two classic cars the couple had were burned shells, the metal rims melted into hard silver puddles.
Firefighters stood on the property, looking for hot spots that could rekindle the blaze.
“This was my home that burned down,” Brogan told them.
The Poeville fire burned garages, sheds, carports and seven homes including Brogan’s log cabin with the red tin roof.
The vase of peacock feathers, the CDs, the black metal train lantern and Brogan’s routine are all gone.
The family is living at the house of a friend until the end of July. They are working with insurance companies and have not decided if they will rebuild.
It’s hard to find the right place for Brogan.
He just wants to go home.
He lists over and over again what he lost in incredible detail. He can describe each piece of art that hung on the walls and what was in every closet, cabinet and drawer.
“I have 132 flags now,” Brogan says.
Then he remembers.
“But they all just burned. They are gone.”
Siobhan McAndrew tells stories about the people of Northern Nevada and covers education in Washoe County. Read her journalism right here. Consider supporting her work by subscribing to the Reno Gazette Journal.