Bison fire fight was an epic battle
July 27, 2013
With flames three times the height of the Minden Inn burning in thick vegetation in rough terrain, the 24,136-acre Bison fire was the largest and most expensive in Douglas County history.
The fire, which consumed large swaths of trees and brush in the Pine Nut Mountains for 10 days, cost more than $8.6 million to fight.
"This fire was very, very unusual for this region," said East Fork Fire Chief Tod Carlini. "To have a burn duration of more than four or five days is a rare event. It exhibited some really nontypical fire behavior."
The Bison fire was started by lightning strike in the Buffalo Canyon area near Sierra Spirit Ranch at 3:30 p.m. July 4.
Firefighters were already tied up with the multiple fireworks shows around the region, as well as fighting two other fires. Douglas County law enforcement officers were focusing on Lake Tahoe beaches, limiting their numbers when the fire hit.
"People actually saw the downstrike," Carlini said. "The fire took off really quick. A number of people took photographs with time stamps so you can track the fire. It is amazing how fast this fire grew. Right from the beginning, we knew that whether we had access or not, this thing was going to be a pretty big event."
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Carlini said conditions were ripe for the Bison fire to grow on July 4. They would get worse as the fire progressed.
"It was the second year of drought conditions; we had low humidity and gusty winds," he said. "Weather played a role throughout the whole fire."
Firefighters use a weather index named after meteorologist Donald Haines that measures the potential for dry, unstable air to contribute to erratic fire behavior.
Carlini said that on a scale of 1-6, the Haines Index was at 4 to 5 on July 4. By July 6-8, the index had red-lined at 6, the highest potential for a fire to grow or exhibit erratic fire behavior.
Early challenges to fighting the fire included competition for resources from other fires, and that crews from other fires that did arrive were close to the time when they'd have to stand down for a rest period.
Air resources were especially difficult to get.
"When it came to heavy air tankers, there were none were in the area," Carlini said. "We had two strike teams of engines. Normally where we'd get 10 engines, we were lucky to get seven, did get four dozers for the first night of the fire. The key thing initially was to use aircraft to make a safe location for ground units to access the fire."
However, in some instances the single-engine air tankers couldn't drop enough retardant to penetrate the dense brush.
"We had instances where the fire would burn past the retardant," Carlini said.
Things were happening fast in the first hour after the fire started, with dispatch reports coming in two minutes apart.
Getting brush engines to the scene was critical to operating in the rugged terrain. Water had to be trucked in because there are no hydrants in the Pine Nut Mountains.
"We made the request for a federal alarm en route to the fire, which brought a command officer, two SEATS, a helicopter and a spotter plane. We knew what was going to happen because of the way the fire was behaving."
Deputies were stretched thin, but were still able to conduct notifications asking residents of 20 homes in the area to evacuate.
"Reports on the ground and in the air were both talking about the rapid rate of spread and that it was pushing east and northeast," Carlini said.
Firefighters battled the fire through the weekend, at one point getting a line one-third of the way around it before the winds picked it up.
"July 8 was the day it just blew up," Carlini said. "The fire grew 11,000 acres in one day. East Fork started formulating plans for the possibility of it going to Fish Springs, East Valley and Johnson Lane."
As the Douglas County emergency-management officer, Carlini was able to convene county commissioners, who declared a disaster.
"They pushed that declaration through in record time," he said. "Once you declare a disaster, it does open a few more doors for you."
Carlini said the declaration will remain in effect until Aug. 1, which might be beneficial.
"With the potential for rain, there's a chance of flash flooding," he said. "Having the declaration still active is not a bad thing. We do eventually have to terminate it. But if we have a flash flooding issue in the next few weeks, it will give us an added advantage."
By the time the fire was brought to heel, it had burned a 12-mile stretch of the Pine Nuts, and had crested the mountains twice.
Despite the evacuation of a portion of northwestern Smith Valley, the fire only burned 11 acres outside Douglas County.
"What's remarkable is that there is still so much area out there that is left unburned," Carlini said. "You really get an appreciation of how big our county is."
While some impacts of the fire will take years to determine, most of the damage was to public land. Carlini said 70 percent of the area burned is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. Of the rest, 14 percent was on land held in trust by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and 16 percent of the land was privately held.
Of the $8.6 million cost to fight the fire, 84 percent will be picked up by the federal government. While the district would be on the hook for 16 percent of the bill, or $1.4 million, much of that will be covered by the state, leaving the county bill at $40,000.