On top of it all, area fire response responsibilities are in limbo.
“Fire agencies clearly know this could be a big fire season,” said Rhett Milne, meteorologist and fire weather forecaster with the National Weather Service in Reno.
As fire chiefs and firefighters watch politicians squabble over Washoe County commissioners’ decision last month to stand up its own fire department, hire a new fire chief for the Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District, merge it with Sierra Fire Protection District and try to hammer out an agreement with the city of Reno, those who fight the fires already know this year’s fire season could be one of the worst in years.
“There have already been fires we normally wouldn’t expect to see,” Milne said. “All it takes is one good lightning outbreak and we could have massive fires. We would be off to the races as far as catching wildfires.”
Wildfires in northern Nevada typically are either man-made or vegetation catches fire from lightning. This year’s lightning forecast is for a stronger season.
“This year, we expect a little more lightning than the last few years,” Milne said. “Everywhere in northern Nevada is more susceptible to lightning because fuels will be more receptive if lightning strikes. It will be easier to cause a fire.”
The worst possible scenario would be for the region to see another “decade fire,” which requires resources from all over Nevada and neighboring states, and has the power to destroy thousands of acres and hundreds of structures.
This winter’s dry season, followed by an above-average start to 2011’s fire season with the destructive Caughlin Ranch and Washoe Drive fires, have experts looking at a grave scenario to this year’s forecast.
A decade fire, such as the Caughlin Fire, pulls multiple fire agencies together and involves standing up an emergency management coordination center as the crisis escalates. As the name suggests, fire management plans for this type of fire require ramping up mutual aid agreements, solidifying emergency training and building relationships.
“The Caughlin Fire was a decade fire,” Milne said.
The Caughlin Fire, which started just after midnight Nov. 18, 2011 in the low Sierra Nevada foothills in south Reno, burned at total of 1,935 acres. Forty-two structures were destroyed or partially destroyed. Fire crews from the northern Nevada region, Lake Tahoe and northern California contributed apparatus and personnel. A total of 445 personnel with 59 pieces of fire fighting equipment were used, including hand crews and support vehicles.
The Waterfall Fire in 2004, another decade fire that burned 7,600 acres and destroyed 21 structures, was found to be human caused. To restore the area cost $6.4 million, while the total firefighting cost was $4 million.
Federal fire administrators nationally have begun planning efforts to coordinate mutual aid, emergency preparedness, apparatus and technology advancement and other operational changes to prepare for upcoming challenges dealing with decade fires.
Kevin Cochran, a U.S. fire administrator in January 2010, said American fire services will require collective focus to meet these big challenges.
“The first big challenge concerns service levels, which should be determined based on community risk assessments and capabilities to the degree that a community or fire department has the resources needed to prevent, prepare for, respond to or mitigate risk within their community,” Cochran wrote in a report.
“Based on the economic drivers we are facing, the fire service at local levels will have to evaluate whether a community or fire department has the resources and capabilities to respond to such risks,” the report said. “If they do not, there are several strategies to remedy this, such as more formal automatic-aid or increased mutual-aid agreements, regional agreements related to special operations services, and the consolidation of smaller departments into larger departments. We’ve been talking about this last tactic for a long time, but we’ve come to a place now where we’re going to have to be more serious in analyzing the need for that.”
Washoe County is already facing these challenges by attempting to combine the Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District and the Sierra Fire Protection District. However, with the divorce from the city of Reno, all fire agencies must now renegotiate automatic aid agreements throughout Washoe County and figure out what that picture will look like.
This is all happening at a time when possibly one of the worst fire season starts is hitting them in the face. Truckee Meadows and Sierra Fire’s agreements already call for drawing down its stations to three-person engine crews. The Sparks Fire Department already is at the three-person minimum staffing level. Sparks is also renegotiating its automatic aid agreement with all other fire districts.
Today’s joint meeting with Washoe County, the cities of Reno and Sparks and the Washoe County School District Board of Trustees will take place at the County Commission Chambers at 8:30 a.m. The meeting to discuss fire service and other issues will be the first time all players will be at the table to discuss the matter.
The outcome could mean mutual aid agreements, if not settled in time for the expected dangerous fire season ahead, could add a layer of confusion for fire agencies responding to major disastrous burns.
The dry winter has allowed vegetation, brush, trees, logs and especially the dreaded cheat grass — which acts like a match when any spark from lightning or human activity such as a lawnmower — lights it up.
Fire experts in northern Nevada refer to cheat grass as a “one-hour,” meaning it takes 60 minutes to dry out and become flammable after it rains. The vegetation can be found growing and multiplying in abundance throughout the region every year.
Several factors make northern Nevada ripe for a fire season that will keep agencies busier than usual, including a continued drought.
“Areas of above-normal fire activity are forecast for March through June, as drought conditions spread and generally dry weather persists, especially in southern and western Nevada. However, fire activity may occur in many areas of the state if there are ignitions during a period of strong winds,” according to Western Great Basin Outlook, a regional monthly and seasonal fire outlook. “Over the next several months (though May 2012) drought conditions are expected to intensify slightly.”
Secondly, the dry winter allowed northern Nevada to grow cheat grass over every surface of the region. During typical winter months, cheat grass dies when hit by snow. This year, without the snow, the grass was able to stay on the ground and grow abundantly until it covered every bit of ground possible, said Billy Britt, battalion chief for the Carson City Bureau of Land Management.
“We already have a lot of standing cheat (grass),” Britt said. “And our predictive services look at weather and fuels, showing that we are in drought and continuing into a drought this summer. More than likely, we are to going to receive an above normal precipitation this summer. Above normal cheat grass suggests a busier than normal fire season.”
More than 50 percent of fires are human caused in the Sierra Front, Britt said. With the abundant amount of cheat grass in the area, normal activity that usually wouldn’t start a fire now could easily flame up.
“Grinding on a tractor or fence shooting or lighting firecrackers — this year with cheat grass, these activities that didn’t start a fire, they will start a fire now,” Britt said.
On the Sierra Front, based in northern Nevada and comprised of fire agencies working in collaboration, preparedness for 10-year fire situations are based on budgets and what is needed to put out massively destructive fires.
With the dry winter, the Lake Tahoe area, which typically will see larger fires in the later part of the season, has timber that has become dangerously dried out. That timber is a 1,000-hour fuel, meaning after precipitation it takes 1,000 hours before it will burn. With no regular precipitation, that timber has been allowed to continue to dry out. The timber is at its lowest moisture level in 20 years, Britt said.
“In timber, this summer, there is greater chance we will have large fires in the Sierras,” Britt said. “This could lead to a larger decade-type fire. Coming into June, July, we may request additional money to increase staffing. Right now, we haven’t asked for additional money, but we think there is going to be an increased fire danger this summer.”
Based on this information, agencies in the Lake Tahoe area have been actively burning and reducing fuels on federal lands, Britt said.
“There are federal and statewide activities to reduce fuels in the BLM Carson City district,” Britt said. “We are actively working on fuel reduction projects as we speak.”
Federal fire officials are also planning to restrict burning much earlier than they would typically. The Reno Fire Department has already taken steps to close its open burning of vegetative materials within areas protected by the Reno fire Department and Sierra Fire Protection district “due to dry conditions,” according to a press release sent out by spokeswoman Michelle Anderson.
Anderson said the Reno Fire Department is not sure when the public burning season will be opened, if at all, this year.
“We don’t have an anticipated date,” Anderson said.
When asked if the department would consider shutting the season altogether for the year, she responded, “That’s always a possibility.”
“We just don’t know,” Anderson said. “That could be a possibility, not to have an open burn this year.”