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Brush fire burning homes south of Reno, Nev.

Winds gusting up to 82 mph pushed a fast-moving brush fire through a valley south of Reno on Thursday, burning several homes and threatening many more along US Highway 395.

Nevada State Trooper Dan Lopez said authorities shut down about a five-mile stretch of the highway after heavy smoke reduced visibility to zero north of Washoe Lake in Pleasant Valley, about 10 miles from Reno.

Authorities evacuated hundreds of students from Pleasant Valley Elementary School and were beginning to move people out of neighboring Washoe City.

At least a half dozen homes have burned in the Washoe Valley Estates neighborhood, KRNV-TV reported. The Reno Gazette-Journal reported explosions could be heard in the area.

Lopez said U.S. 395 was closed from the south end of Reno at Mount Rose Highway, or state Route 431, to the north end of Washoe Valley near the Bowers Mansion. Northbound traffic was being rerouted back to Carson City about 15 miles to the south.

The strong winds blowing over the Sierra ahead of a winter storm caused delays earlier Thursday in Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Reno, where he was two hours late to give a speech at Galena High School.

The air smelled of smoke at the school, which sits on the Mount Rose Highway leading to Lake Tahoe. Biden told the audience about 25 minutes into his speech that he was cutting his remarks short because of the fire, which broke out about 12:45 p.m.

The flames up to 40 feet high raced through sage brush, grass and pines in an area where small neighborhoods are dispersed among an otherwise rural landscape. Washoe County animal services officials were helping round up horses and other livestock for evacuation.

The American Red Cross opened an evacuation center at Damonte High School, where the children from the elementary school were taken.

Winds gusts of up to 82 mph were reported within a few miles of the fire, and a gust of 122 mph was recorded atop Slide Mountain, which is between the fire and Reno at the Mount Rose ski resort.

The conditions were similar to those Nov. 18, when a wind-driven fire destroyed 30 homes in southwest Reno.

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