In drought, fire season is year-round
It’s hard to plan for fire season when the concept has been rendered irrelevant by this year’s dry winter.
“Having a red flag warning on a January day is unheard of,” East Fork Fire District Chief Tod Carlini said. “That’s the first time in my career I remember that happening.”
The Carson River basin is running at a third of average snowpack so far this winter with Natural Resources Conservation Service telemetry indicating 31 percent of average snowpack in the mountains as of Thursday.
“We’re going into March next week with the chance of wildland fire increasing above normal,” he said. “This is pretty early in what should be the planning parts or our wildland response.”
The National Weather Service Drought Monitor indicates that dry weather in Western Nevada will persist or intensify.
“It’s not looking good at this moment,” Carlini said. “The Walker River folks are predicting 50 percent will be available to them for irrigation this summer.”
The dry weather is making vegetation easier to ignite because there’s no moisture. In wet years, vegetation will absorb moisture overnight and burning will slow or stop. As dry as it is now, Carlini said vegetation isn’t absorbing as much moisture and that’s increasing both the chance of ignition and the potential that it will keep burning.
“When there’s no moisture and heat during the day, it’s just a recipe for disaster that’s going to continue,” he said.
While there’s not much anyone can do about the weather, there are things residents can do to reduce their exposure should there be a wildland fire.
“The single most important thing people can do is work on their landscaping,” Carlini said. “We’ve been preaching defensible space for years. We do have success stories where it does make a difference. I hope people who live in the interface take that concept and embrace it.”
Carlini recommended residents visit the Nevada Living with Fire web site, http://www.living withfire.info.
“The program has demonstrated its success in many areas, including getting people to understand their responsibility,” he said.
In the Caughlin Ranch fire, several of the homes had evergreen type shrubbery around them.
“The evergreens look nice when they’re young, but when they grow up and impinge on the home, they become a vegetative gas can,” he said. “These are an accident waiting to happen. We saw that time and time again in the Caughlin Ranch area. Homes that survived the fire storm were homes that didn’t have that type of landscaping, or where it was appropriately spaced from the home.”
Access to homes was a serious issue at both Caughlin Ranch and Washoe Valley fires, which Carlini said is critical both for firefighters getting to the fire and residents trying to escape it.
“As we’ve seen, people don’t have a lot of time when one of these wind-driven wildfires comes up,” he said. “In some areas there is limited access as fire crews are coming in and people are trying to get out.”
Carlini said that while it’s true that only the Nevada governor can order evacuations in a wildfire, it’s a good idea to be prepared to go.
“The wise thing to do is to evacuate, especially if you have older folks in the home or children, you should put your family’s safety first,” he said. “Losing a house is bad, but houses are material objects, where your life is not. We had fatalities in both these fires. It has been a long time since we’ve had fatalities in a fire that weren’t firefighters. People need to take that into consideration.”