Wildfire threat poised to hit | NevadaAppeal.com

Wildfire threat poised to hit

by Maggie O'Neill
Appeal Staff Writer

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This year’s wildfire threat is easily visible on a walk outdoors. The surrounding hills boast it. C Hill is bursting with it. The Pine Nut Mountains are basking in it.

When the moisture dries up in the low-lying shrubs and grasses in the lower elevations, Northern Nevada will be bristling with fuel.

“Here in Nevada, there are two words that probably can best describe the fire season: low and later,” said Mark Struble, public affairs officer for the Bureau of Land Management’s Carson City field office and fire information officer for the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center.

“The low begins in the elevations in the valleys and goes up into the hills,” he said. “The amount of moisture has caused explosions in cheat grass, other grasses and shrubs. There’s going to be a lot of stuff that can carry fire when these dry up.”

“Later” is a fire season that will likely begin in late June, instead of earlier, because of the retained moisture in plants after a wet winter and spring. Larger plants, like trees, will retain that moisture much longer, possibly throughout the entire wildfire season; smaller plants, like shrubbery and grass, may lose moisture by next month, still a little later than normal.

“There is a real concern for when (those) fuels dry out,” said Pete Anderson, state forester for the Nevada Division of Forestry. “It’s hard to predict when that will be because it’s very weather-dependent. The temperatures forecast for next week are in the 80s and higher and very dry. By the end of June, we could be in a situation where the fuel moistures are really down.

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“There’s a real concern that once a fire starts, you have a much greater potential for a big fire quickly.”

Struble recently hiked C Hill, which burned in last year’s Waterfall fire.

“If you look up at it, you can see its face is turning purple,” he said. “That’s cheat grass. In some places, it’s almost knee high. That’s an area that actually burned last year. It’s amazing how much stuff has come back.”

It’s not without threat again this year, and that goes for the whole area burned last year.

“There will still be some fire threat there, but it will be a different fuel-type,” said Mike Dondero, state fire management officer with the Nevada Division of Forestry. “It will be a lot easier to suppress, and it will burn a lot quicker, too. One of the things is, the seed mix that has been planted there are grasses that stay greener a lot longer than cheat grass. Their flammability won’t be noticeable until July.”

Because of this year’s preponderance of shrubs and grasses and their ability to burn quickly, properties should be cleared of them, and people need to be cautious with cigarette butts and campfires.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we had a couple fires start from catalytic converters or off-road vehicles,” said Struble. “And almost every year, there’s someone who thinks they can light off fireworks on BLM land or anywhere. If you see someone doing that, you should call the fire department.”

After the Waterfall fire, BLM began creating fuel breaks – thinning out land in strips 60- to 80-feet wide around Carson City. BLM recently completed a prescribed burn in Markleeville, Calif., the first in 10 years, to clean out brush and the understory. But moisture like this year’s decreases the chance of large fires in the forest crown.

Wildfire season in the United States usually begins in Florida, works its way across the Southern states into the Southwest, then moves north into the Great Basin.

As the summer progresses, the season shifts farther north, except for in extenuating circumstances, like the dry spell in California last year that started the fire season much earlier. This year’s main threat is predicted to be in the north.

“I’m sure you’ve heard the Northwest got very little snowpack,” Anderson said. “The general expectation is there is going to be a wildfire season across the northern tier, like Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, although they have received some rain recently.”

Yellowstone National Park is also at risk.

“The biggest problem (the Northern states) are having is with the drought,” Struble said. “It almost makes you want to weep. It is primed and ready to burn. It is going to be dangerous in some of the communities, unless they get slammed with rain.”

Nevada’s wildfire season usually starts in June and continues through September.

“There is always going to be a wildfire season,” Struble said. “If you don’t get any water, that’s one kind of fire. If you get water, that’s another kind of fire.”

n Contact reporter Maggie O’Neill at moneill@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1219.

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