Even though most of the big air tankers are still grounded for extensive safety checks, state and federal wildfire experts say Nevada is prepared for what could be the worst fire year since 1999.
In that year, more than a million acres burned in more than 500 fires around the state.
State Forester Pete Anderson told Gov. Kenny Guinn during a briefing Friday the deepening drought weakened trees, sage and other plants statewide, opening them to beetle and other insect infestations that have killed millions of plants.
He said the drought and years of bad management practices, which resulted in far too many trees, have turned Nevada and most of the West into a tinderbox waiting for disaster.
Humboldt Toiyabe Fire and Aviation Manager Mike Dondero said spring rains compounded the problem statewide by encouraging the growth of cheat grass, which is now dried out and flammable as well.
Dondero, Anderson and others on the state Fire Board, which coordinates state and federal wildfire efforts, said they have more resources to fight the fires now than they did last year - even with the air tankers grounded after an accident in which the wings of a tanker broke off while pulling out of a retardant bombing run, killing the crew.
Nevada has one of its two large tankers back in the air and Dondero said more may soon pass inspection and win clearance to fly again.
Where there were just five single-engine retardant planes in the state last year, he said, there are now 15 among state and federal agencies. They described those planes as more versatile and able to land on back roads or small airports to load more retardant, instead of having to fly to a major airport like the big DC7s.
In addition, they have more helicopters available and the assistance of heavy helicopters from the National Guard, if needed.
"Our comfort level has gone up," said Dondero.
But all fire officials told the governor that this season will be one of the most dangerous in state history because of the damage caused by the extended drought.
They said the worst scenario would be a repeat of 1999 when August thunderstorms brought thousands of lightning strikes but little rain.
"Lightning is by far the biggest threat we have," said Dondero.
Contact Geoff Dornan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 687-8750.