Probe: State cut staff for prescribed burn gone wrong
February 18, 2017
An 81-page report on an Oct. 14 fire that burned through one of Western Nevada's most exclusive neighborhoods blames inadequate preparation for and poor decision making during the controlled burn that preceded the blaze.
The controlled burn began Oct. 7 and was supposedly completed by Oct. 11. But, in the wee hours of Oct. 14, driven by winds gusting as high as 87 mph, hidden hot spots erupted in flames and the Little Valley fire escaped containment. It roared down the canyon into a subdivision along Franktown Road. By the time it was contained, it had destroyed 23 homes and 17 outbuildings. Nearly 2,300 acres were burned by the blaze that reached all the way into Washoe Valley and across Highway 395.
A key factor was inadequate mop-up to find and extinguish underground hot-spots, the report concludes. Hot spots can smolder for days beneath the forest floor.
The report cites lower than required staffing, including of supervisory positions, during the burn.
It also says there were Eastern Sierra Camp crews available but the last day they were assigned to Little Valley operations was Oct. 11.
The burn boss in charge of the fire was advised there would be high winds the night of Oct. 13, but believed that they could handle mop-up with their local resources.
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"Based on the limited amount of heat near the control lines, success of the current mop-up effort and the risk to firefighters working in timber during high winds, the decision was made not to staff the prescribed fire the night of Oct. 13," according to the report.
That decision was made despite the fact that hand crews in the area earlier that day reported seeing more "smokes" south of their location.
There had been some rain before the burn began, but not enough to push back the drought.
"The eastern Sierra front, including the Little Valley area, was under the influence of a long term drought," it states. The report also says after that bit of rain, the forest quickly returned to drought conditions.
Conceding that subsurface smoldering stumps can be hard to find, the report notes that hand crews basically had nothing more than feeling the ground by hand to try find them.
They did not have infrared devices to help.
Those underground hot spots can linger for days but can quickly ignite once they are disturbed and exposed to oxygen.
The winds on the 13, the report said, were strong enough "to disturb the forest floor and introduce oxygen to the smoldering materials … in some instances bringing them to a free burning state."
Those winds, it says, were also strong enough to transport burning embers out of the containment area.
The report says there was no analysis of potential fire spread outside the burn area in the fire plan and the plan didn't consider adjacent fuels.
"The dry duff bed in the area of origin of the Little Valley Wildfire was extremely receptive to ignition sources under the extreme wind conditions present the evening of Oct. 13," the report says.
Recommendations in the report include developing stronger evaluation procedures after future controlled burns and the use of "wet water" (foam) in mop-up operations because it penetrates the fuel bed on the forest floor much better. It recommends issuing infrared detectors to locate heat signatures during mop-up so the hot spots can be found, dug up and extinguished.
It calls for smaller burn units and requiring completion of mop-up in those units before moving to the next unit.
It says at least one fire boss should be on site for the duration of the fire and recommends "duration of the fire" be expanded and clarified.
In addition, it recommends better communication and cooperation with the weather service and other agencies in developing and conducting controlled burns.
Put together in the months since the fire, the report was written by a team of wildfire experts from the U.S. Forest Service and states including Georgia, Utah, Florida and California (Yosemite).
Conservation and Natural Resources Director Bradley Crowell said in a statement the department is unable to comment further because of pending litigation by the property owners who lost homes in the fire.