Little Valley fire probe: State cut staff for prescribed burn turned wildfire

An independent investigation into a smoldering prescribed burn that sparked a Nevada wildfire and destroyed 23 homes found several questionable practices at the state forestry division, including understaffing despite repeated warnings about unstable, windy weather.

The state of Nevada late Wednesday ordered the review made public on the fire that started Oct. 14 by lingering embers that spread in the Washoe Valley.

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 fire escaped containment. It roared down the canyon into a subdivision along Franktown Road. But 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 U.S. 395.

“With knowledge of the impending wind event, staffing continued to decrease on the two days prior to the escape,” according to the report overseen by the Phoenix National Incident Management Organization.

The 81-page report concluded that repeated requests from Washoe County and others to halt the operation due to deteriorating air quality and weather conditions were either ignored or failed to make their way up the line of command at the Nevada Division of Forestry.

It says 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.

“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 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, adding that, after that bit of rain, the forest quickly returned to drought conditions.

Conceding that subsurface smoldering stumps can be hard to find, the report noted that hand crews basically had nothing more than feeling the ground by hand to try to 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 13th, the report says, 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 of 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.

In addition to failing to adequately monitor mop-up efforts on the burn, the report cites a lack of documentation for certain training requirements for some fire department personnel. In some cases, a “burn boss trainee” who was reporting to the “burn boss” improperly checked off on conditions necessary to ensure safety despite the fact wind speeds and relatively humidity were outside approved parameters.

The burn boss and trainee specifically discussed the forecast for high winds the day before the fire escaped.

“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 to not staff the prescribed fire in the night of Oct. 13,” the report said.

Other findings include:

A daily risk analysis that identified hazards and mitigations was not done for the prescribed fire.

The smoke management and air quality plan was insufficient to effectively minimize negative impacts

A review of the “complexity rating” assigned to the project “revealed that a few elements might have been underrated,” including “management organization” and “public and political interest.”

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 better penetrates the fuel bed on the forest floor. 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.

The report put together in the months since the fire 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.

Gov. Brian Sandoval said he would discuss the findings with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources overseeing the Division of Forestry.

“Bringing in an outside professional perspective was an important step in understanding how this tragedy occurred,” he said. “Once again, I would like to express my heartfelt sorrow to the victims of this tragic event and my sincere gratitude to the first responders and firefighters who battled this intense and shocking event without injury or loss of life.”


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