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September 2, 2014

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Mount Charleston called nation’s top wildfire priority; blaze is 15 percent contained

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Steve Marcus

A Nevada Department of Transportation worker talks with a Kyle Canyon resident at a roadblock on Kyle Canyon Road at U.S. 95 Sunday, July 7, 2013. Residents who needed to get pets or medicine were allowed past the checkpoint.

Updated Sunday, July 7, 2013 | 9:21 p.m.

Mount Charleston Wildfire

A wildfire glows on Mount Charleston above Las Vegas, Wednesday, July 10, 2013. Launch slideshow »

The cost of fighting the fire that is threatening more than 500 structures on Mount Charleston has grown to $2.4 million, but officials indicated Sunday the effort -- which they called the No. 1 wildfire priority in the nation -- was making headway.

Officials with the Great Basin Incident Management team, which is directing firefighting efforts on Mount Charleston, said the fire grew by 450 acres -- from 14,108 acres Saturday to 14,458 acres early Sunday.

It was another signal to officials, who were conducting a town hall-style meeting Sunday evening with evacuees, that at least the fire's spread was slowing.

Officials said nine "hot shot" crews were involved in the firefighting efforts on Mount Charleston. Hot shots are a 20-person hand crew of elite firefighters who have a significant amount of wildland training, said Marty Adell, an incident commander who used to be a hot shot.

In all, more than 700 personnel are involved in fighting the fire and providing support to firefighters and evacuees.

A 10th hot shot crew has been requested, and if it arrives it would mean more than 10 percent of the nation's 100 hot shot crews would be focusing their efforts in the mountainside outside of Las Vegas.

Ken Matonovich, 67, owns a cabin as a part-time residence in the Rainbow subdivision in the Rainbow Canyon area of Mount Charleston. As he was going into the community meeting Sunday evening at Centennial High School, he said these past few days he had felt like a mushroom: in the dark.

"Only difference is mushrooms are fed crap. We're not fed anything," he said.

Some community members attending the town hall were critical of how the fire was handled on the first day, asking why more aircraft weren't used. When questions became heated, other community members tried to shush those demanding officials answer why more couldn't be done to protect an area many care deeply about.

Rich Harvey, team incident commander, said he felt that getting resources hadn't been a problem. One resident emphatically asked what it would take to get 20 helicopters to fight the fire, and Harvey responded filling such a request would tap out the system.

Mount Charleston is currently the top priority fire in the nation, the officials noted.

While some residents expressed discontent with how the fire was handled at the onset, others said the meeting helped them get a better sense of where the fire was and were critical of their neighbors passing judgment.

"I was offended. I think we're getting more than our fair share. Nineteen firefighters died in Prescott (Ariz.). How dare we say we're not getting our fair share," said Elizabeth Ashley, 55, who lives in the Rainbow Subdivision.

Harvey said that the Rainbow Subdivision was one of the areas officials were watching closely. Helicopters are working to drop retardant into that area on a regular basis, he said.

The wildfire that started Monday hasn't injured residents or damaged structures but it still threatens 501 structures. Clark County officials said Sunday the fire was 15 percent contained.

Firefighters are keeping a close eye on the Rainbow Canyon, Echo Canyon and Cathedral Rock areas because they are the most at risk, said Fernandez Leary, deputy fire chief of Clark County.

There is plenty of law enforcement in the area, and there has been no looting, Leary said.

Based on information officials got from fire command, Metro Police determined Sunday afternoon that it is too dangerous to escort people back into the canyons, said Bill Cassell, Metro's public information officer.

Cassell said the situation could change, but he didn't think escorts would be possible the rest of Sunday or Monday.

State Sen. Scott Hammond toured several of the areas affected by the fire Sunday morning and said that the response teams seemed to be effectively dealing with the whims and movement of the fire.

"There's a calmness; there's a feeling that the right people are in the right places right now," he said.

Hammond, elected in 2012 to the Senate, has worked for 15 years as a civics and Spanish teacher at Indian Springs High School, near the fire. He said that many of the people affected include students, parents and community members he interacts with at the school.

"These are people I know and care about," he said. "They're obsessing and worrying every moment of the day right now. It's their homes, community, their pets. ... I want to make sure they get all the information they can."

Cassell said Highway 157 is closed at Scottie Street but that homes below Scottie still have access. Highway 156 is closed at the junction with U.S. 95. Highway 158, which connects highways 157 and 156, and Lovell Canyon Road are closed.

Marty Adell, incident commander with the Bureau of Land Management, said Saturday that crews were making significant gains on the fire’s south end. Crews have been attacking the fire directly by digging barren dirt lines to stop its spread, while helicopters and air tankers drop fire retardant and gallons of water to slow it down.

Reinforcements were expected on Sunday with about 200 additional firefighters arriving from eight Western states. Meanwhile a team of top-tier firefighters — the Type 1 National Incident Team — was to take command of the fire’s northern end, as the Type 2 team, which typically handles smaller fires, was to fight from the south end.

“This fire poses unique challenges. Specifically, 14,000 acres is not small potatoes,” Adell said. “A large amount of that area is also in an inaccessible place.”

Click to enlarge photo

Smoke from Mount Charleston wildfire was visible to passengers taking off from McCarran International Airport Saturday, July 6.

Adell said 520 evacuations had occurred in Trout, Kyle and Lee canyons.

Nancy Barber, 70, and Merle Barber, 64, are worried about what they described as their spacious dream home, which they spent years building in the Rainbow Canyon subdivision.

Every resident is aware of the area's fire risk, but it didn't stop the Barbers from wanting to set down roots, she said.

The Barbers originally ignored warnings to leave, but the smoke became so intense that they evacuated — taking clothes and their two cats, Baddy and Stretch, to the Las Vegas home that they are trying to sell.

The Barbers have had to evacuate once before, but this is "way scarier," Nancy Barber said.

She enjoys bird watching and gardening, and she said she is terrified about what the fire might do to her beloved plants and birds.

Although access roads to reach Mount Charleston have been closed, at least one remained busy. At Kyle Canyon Road, a stream of cars routinely pulled up to the access road blocked by orange cones off U.S. 95. Some were just people interested in checking out the fire; others were residents wondering about the fate of their homes.

U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Suzanne Shelp said about 18 residents who live in the Rainbow, Old Town and Echo subdivisions have driven up to the road or called her. Their questions are the same: “How is it going? When can we return? What protection is in place for the homes?”

Shelp can only assure them that there are wildland firefighters in place.

Don Posson spent Saturday in his SUV across from the closed Kyle Canyon Road. Mostly, he read from his iPad, but occasionally he glanced at the white plume of smoke puffing into the sky on the mountainside.

He owns a home in the Rainbow subdivision that he’s been repairing for the past six months. He’d have been up there that afternoon pounding nails or pulling plumbing had it not been for the fire. All he can do now is watch and wait, the fate of his home out of his hands.

“Knowing what’s going on is no consolation other than to know what’s going on,” Posson said. “What I feel bad about is, I’m a new owner, but a lot of people have made their lives up there. I have a friend who spent 50 years up there. I only have my tools, but there are people who have their whole lives up there.”

The state is prepared to assist during the fire if help is needed, Gov. Brian Sandoval said Saturday in a statement.

“Throughout the day, I have continued to monitor and have received regular updates from the departments of Public Safety and Emergency Management regarding the Carpenter Fire,” Sandoval said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with those who have been displaced and with the firefighters who continue to fight on the front lines.”

Shelp said she didn’t think mandatory evacuation orders would be lifted soon.

A Red Cross shelter is available at Hafen Elementary School in Pahrump, 7120 Hafen Ranch Road.

About 50 Red Cross workers have provided assistance to people displaced by the fire, including 515 meals and shelter for three people and four pets.

A command post that serves firefighters, supervisors and other personnel is at Centennial High School, near the 215 Beltway and Hualapai Way.

For more information about the wildfire, the public can call 702-515-5105.

Andrew Doughman, Dave Toplikar and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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