Kurt Hildebrand

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October 13, 2012
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Backyard burning victim of severe wildfire season

Since August 2011, six fires have raged through the pinon and shrub in the Pine Nut Mountains, devouring more than 18,000 acres, sending huge plumes of smoke into the air east of Carson Valley.

Until Friday morning's rain, ash devils played across the mountains where dry conditions and winds conspired to imitate the fires that raged across the mountains over the last year.

The three biggest fires were caused by human action, including the 3,900-acre Ray May fire in August 2011, which started as a result of a improperly extinguished campfire, the 7,500-acre TRE fire begun by an improperly extinguished backyard burn and the Carter Springs fire, started next to the highway by either a cigarette or a small car fire.

Just two fires, Ray May Way and TRE, destroyed two homes, a guest house, eight outbuildings and an abandoned house, along with many vehicles.

The enormity of the damage caused by the fires has prompted the East Fork Fire District to cancel the fall backyard burning season.

Typically the season starts in late October, but East Fork Fire Marshal Steve Eisele said conditions are too dry to take a chance on opening the season.

"We've had six significant fires with as many as 18,000 acres burned," he said.

The East Fork district is coming off of an uncommonly dry water year, which ended Sept. 30 with Minden receiving less than half of its average moisture.

Minden weather watcher Stan Kapler reported 4.03 inches of precipitation for the year, 44 percent of the average 8.38 inches the town usually receives. On Friday morning, Kapler reported a tenth of an inch of rain fell in Minden, the first rain he'd recorded since Sept. 7.

That's a substantial contrast to the winter of 2010-11, when Minden received nearly double the average precipitation and there was still snow on Jobs Peak in August.

But while all that moisture slowed down the arrival of fire season, it also contributed to the amount of vegetation available to burn. By August 2011, vegetation was dry enough to catch easily, by spring 2012 after a dry winter it was kindling dry.

Residents of Pine View Estates, who watched a wall of flame march toward their homes, were fortunate that conditions favored survival of the neighborhood located near where the Ray May fire kindled.

In the case of TRE, the first two houses burned early in the fire as residents were being evacuated from where homes and the wildland meet.

Those who fight fires in what is known as the wildland interface focus on protecting homes and keeping safe.

In the case of the Carter Springs fire, that meant establishing an anchor and then working up a hill, always making sure the flames don't get behind firefighters.

Bureau of Land Management Fire Management Officer Shane McDonald, who was in charge of fighting the Carter Springs fire, said the first thing firefighters do is establish priorities.

"Every fire we go to requires that we make decisions about what the priorities are, what's threatened by the fire, and the safety of the public and firefighters," he said. "We teach our crews to create an anchor point and make sure not to let the fire get around them."

In the case of Carter Springs, the anchor point was the highway near Double Spring summit.

"We had to keep the fire from getting across the highway, and get the cars out of there," he said.

In fighting Western Nevada fires, wind is often a factor in spreading a fire. While at Carter Springs the wind wasn't strong, it shifted all around.

"The winds were all over the place," McDonald said. "When the zephyr picked up it pushed the fire up the hill."

While protecting homes is a priority for firefighters, homeowners can help by making sure their property has defensible space around it.

In previous years, homeowners could use backyard burning to help dispose of brush and other combustible material around their homes.

This year, however, Eisele is encouraging residents to take advantage of several "Compost your Combustibles" sites that will open around the county Oct. 27 through Dec. 2.

"We encourage people to continue their fuel reduction that they normally do," he said. "Then take the material to one of the compost sites instead of burning it."

Eisele said he's still negotiating some of the sites, but once they are all confirmed, their locations will be available at the East Fork Web site and published in The Record-Courier.

Agricultural burning will continue to be allowed.

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The Record Courier Updated Oct 15, 2012 10:52AM Published Oct 13, 2012 01:18PM Copyright 2012 The Record Courier. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.