The bleating of sheep while they’re feeding on cheatgrass in western Carson City should be a comforting sound for those who remember the roar of the 2004 Waterfall fire.
The multimillion-dollar fire west of the city swept across wildland to reach homes, destroying 17 of them and damaging 14 others in July almost a decade ago. It damaged or destroyed three commercial buildings and 51 vehicles. It claimed 32 outbuildings. Estimates were that it took some $8 million to control the blaze, which did at least $10 million in personal-property damage.
Sheep have been an important means of keeping fire fuels at bay since 2006, according to natural resources and firefighting officials.
“It’s one of many tools in our toolbox,” said Carson City Fire Chief Stacey Giomi. “It’s one of the greenest tools.”
He said it benefits the city and its residents, the sheep, shepherds and owners to have the cheatgrass eaten so fire fuels are cut down between range tree lines and homes on the west side.
“There is no cost to the city,” said Ann Bollinger, city government’s natural resources specialist with the Parks and Recreation Department. “The project has really worked out for us.”
A decade later, the fire remains relatively fresh in Giomi’s mind. It began well before dawn July 14, 2004, and eventually required 1,200 federal, state and local firefighters to bring it under control. It resulted in five firefighter injuries and five firefighting units being damaged.
“I was the acting chief,” Giomi said, recalling the chief then happened to be on vacation. “It was devastating. It was devastating to our community; it was devastating to our employees.”
Giomi said it taught firefighters that fighting a fire threatening your own community is much different than going to fight fires burning other places.
“The feeling of loss was so much greater in this fire because, when the fire was out …” he said, “those of us left had to deal with the fact we couldn’t save those homes that were lost.”
Bollinger said the sheep-grazing area runs along the city’s urban west side from Curry Street behind Greenhouse Garden Center to C Hill and on north to the Western Nevada College campus. She said that this year, progress for the grazing, from south to north on the west side, will take about five weeks. It began Thursday.
Bollinger said in some years, it has taken six weeks. Drought means fire risk is very high, she said, but a fine line in decision making on the time line meant five this year because “we don’t want to have a negative impact on our vegetation.” There are about 750 sheep plus lambs, a couple of herders, a great white Pyrenees guard dog and three or four border collies involved in the program this year.
Firefighters provide water for the sheep, which Giomi has even handled himself.
“I watered them last year,” he said. “Last year was the first year we watered them.” Giomi said the sheep waste no time when water arrives.
“It was like a stampede of them coming out of the hills,” he said, noting the sheep understand what the firefighters’ arrival means. He said that when he pulled up the sheep were more than a mile away, but not for long. “They were coming a mile a minute; they were there in seconds.”
It requires 1,200 to 1,500 gallons to water the sheep each time.