With historically high temperatures, low humidity, and dry, dry land, Northern Nevada is facing what could be a devastating fire season. For our ongoing series on the drought and all its ripple effects, Reno Public Radio’s Michelle Bliss ventured out to Washoe Valley where local firefighters have been preparing for what this summer may bring.
Greg Jackson is an operator for the Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District, and he’s hiking through the woods to a half-dead, towering pine tree that his crew will cut down for practice.
“Just crunching," he says, pointing at the ground. "Every time we take a step around here you know, it’s ready to go. That’s something that’s got us concerned.”
The forest floor is covered with piles of dead brush and most of the trees are, literally, on their last limbs.
“Everybody’s in competition for what little water we have," he says, "In that cluster, look at that—there’s three alive and eight dead standing. They just can’t compete. There’s too many of them.”
Dead trees mean there’s a lot of wildfire fuel. To prepare for the worst, Jackson’s crew is getting re-certified in tree felling, which is basically chopping down a tree in a hurry to manage the spread of a blaze.
Jackson guesses that this tree in particular had probably been around for close to a century, but half of its green pine needles were faded yellow. It wasn’t surviving this drought and would have surely stoked a fire. He says even though it’s only spring, fire season is already here—and has been for some time now.
“With the winters that haven’t shown up here," Jackson says, "we’ve never really gotten out of wild land season. It seems to never end.”
What we think of as fire season typically spans from about June to September, but Fire Marshal Amy Ray says the region is actually experiencing those conditions year-round now.
“We’re getting a lot of dry periods where we have no moisture on the ground with a lot of high and heavy winds," she explains. "We’re looking at some of those red flag conditions that we normally see during the summertime, we have had some of those in the wintertime. Caughlin Fire and Washoe Drive Fire are examples of those.”
The Caughlin Ranch Fire was in November of 2011; the Washoe Drive Fire was in December of 2012. They each burned close to 30 homes and caused millions of dollars in damage.
But for people left untouched, Ray says those fires are a distant memory.
“We go into a period of where you kind of forget," Ray says, "and everybody gets moving on with their lives, so it’s very important that we continue to educate and remind people that we do have a threat out there.”
And that threat has not flat-lined; it’s continually getting worse. Gina McGuire is a meteorologist for Great Basin Protective Services in Reno, an outfit of the Bureau of Land Management. She says it’s not just that conditions are hot, windy, and dry right now. The actual length of the drought—four years—is critical.
“How long it’s gone on is important," McGuire says, "because it could show the severity of the fires—not only whether or not they become large fires, but how hot they burn, how fast they burn, that’s all dependent on how stressed the plant is.”
Timing really is everything, and McGuire says even though the region is seeing more rain this spring, it’s too late and that precipitation can cause more harm than good right now.
“From a fire perspective, when you get the moisture is very critical," according to Ray. "If you get it in the winter, that’s great for the snowpack; however, if we get it in the springtime and that promotes growth, then that’s just more fuel to burn.”
As the unfortunate bearer of bad news here, McGuire also points out that with so many factors stacked against the region, we could see a sort of doomsday scenario, say if a lightning storm sparks several blazes at once:
“And all of a sudden, you’re overwhelming your resources, so then you’ve got a larger potential for those fires to grow because you don’t have enough resources to suppress all of them.”
Right now, there are some big picture efforts to stave off massive wildfires in Northern Nevada. Professors at UNR are setting up a special emergency camera system throughout the region, and Drone America, which is headquartered in Reno, is building prototypes for life-saving unmanned aerial vehicles. KUNR will profile both of these burgeoning technologies next week.
But for now, Fire Marshal Amy Ray says prevention really comes down to individual responsibility.
“We want you to be aware this summer when you’re out and about," Ray says. "Be careful and pay attention if you’re going shooting in an area where there is not a lot of vegetation, so that you don’t have that ability to start that large fire. Let’s pay attention if you’ve got a campfire or a barbeque. We need to work together as a community.”
Ray says we’ve been lucky the last few years, but at some point, luck always runs out.