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November 28, 2014

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Crews keep Mount Charleston wildfire at bay, protecting every structure so far

Firefighters hope to subdue blaze — which is still 15 percent contained — by July 19

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Leila Navidi

Audience members listen during a public briefing on the Carpenter 1 wildfire at Centennial High School on Monday, July 8, 2013.

Mount Charleston Fire - July 8

Rod Collins, an operation section chief for the National Incident Management Team briefs the night shift firefighters before they head out to the Carpenter 1 wildfire from Centennial High School on Monday, July 8, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Wildfire Smoke Makes for Fiery Sunset

Smoke from the Mount Charleston wildfire makes for a fiery sunset Monday, July 8, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Firefighters in Pahrump

Firefighter Pedro Meza of Sequoia National Forest lines up for dinner in Pahrump after fighting the Carpenter 1 wildfire Sunday, July 7, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Firefighters had a “break-even” kind of day Monday in battling the vast wildfire at Mount Charleston, getting some containment in some areas, losing ground in others, but so far managing to save every structure, according to an official in charge of the operation.

However, as drier and hotter weather settled into the area on Monday, along with strong southwest winds, officials also said they don’t expect to contain the fire until July 19 — almost three weeks from when it was first sparked by lightning.

Holding a laser pointer at a large topographical map of Mount Charleston, Rich Harvey, the incident commander of the Great Basin Incident Management team, said those battling the fire have been able to save every building in the picturesque Kyle Canyon, where hundreds of homeowners, renters and visitors were evacuated from on Thursday.

“We made progress. We lost some ground,” Harvey told a group of about 300 people, including Mount Charleston evacuees, who gathered Monday evening at Centennial High School in northwest Las Vegas to hear the latest progress report. “We did not lose any structures at all in our battle today.”

The fire spread rapidly during the past week to consume more than 15,000 acres, or about 5 percent of the total forest area on Mount Charleston.

Harvey said the winds and the drier, sunny weather gave fire crews difficulty and estimated the containment was still at 15 percent, the same as on Sunday.

Bill Dunkelberger, forest supervisor from the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, received a wide round of applause from those at the meeting when he told them so far there had been no injuries to firefighters and to the public “and no loss of your homes.”

However, on Sunday night, the fire had threatened homes in the Rainbow subdivision in Kyle Canyon, coming to within 100 feet of them. That subdivision runs south of Kyle Canyon Road and is east of the largest residential neighborhoods near the top of Kyle Canyon Road and its terminus at the Mount Charleston Lodge. A “hot shot” firefighting crew created a backfire that kept the major part of the blaze from traveling down the slope into the subdivision, he said.

“There was no loss of structures because of their action last night and their action today,” Harvey said. “The Rainbow subdivision didn’t lose much ground at all.”

Harvey said firefighters working inside Kyle Canyon are “confident and calm” and told him Monday they thought they had the right equipment to keep the fire away from the homes and structures scattered through the rugged terrain.

So far, there have been no major injuries during the fire, although some heat-related issues and minor scrapes and bruises, he said.

He said firefighters were focusing their priorities on saving lives, infrastructure and natural resources.

The fire was producing heavy smoke Monday from the pinyon juniper trees burning in the steep hills near those Kyle Canyon housing subdivisions, he said. The thick smoke halted the aviation operation of dumping water and fire retardant. Helicopters that had been used there were diverted to fight other areas of the fire, he said.

“It’s a safety issue for the pilots. If they can’t see, they can’t fly,” he said.

Dunkelberger said the retardant used is a mixture of water and chemical agents that is dumped out of fixed-wing aircraft, such as a DC-10 and heavy air tankers. The retardant keeps the plant life that it lands on wetter longer than water, helping to slow the spread of the fire, he said. The retardant is colored red to make it easier for the two pilots in each plane to see where it has been dropped, he said.

He said much of the retardant has been dropped near the mountain ridges, although the planes have avoided the habitats of the Mount Charleston Blue Butterfly, which has been proposed to be an endangered species. There are eight various sizes of helicopters being used to dump large buckets of water and retardant, he said. The water is gathered from various ponds and lakes in the area, he said.

Eric Newman, Clark County deputy fire chief, said he was in the Rainbow subdivision for about a half hour Monday, checking on Las Vegas-area fire crews. There are 20 firefighters from his department and four others from the Henderson Fire Department who are working rotating 24-hour shifts. They are among the 841 people working on the fire.

Newman said fire crews are going through the exteriors of homes in the Kyle Canyon area, making sure to cover lawn furniture cushions and other items left outside homes that might be set ablaze by falling embers.

While residents have not been able to get back to their homes since Thursday, one man in the Rainbow subdivision has refused to leave until the fire forces him out.

On Monday, Rodney Giles,  63, who lives at 3987 Mount Blanc, at Alpine Way, was still at his home, which he bought in 1974. Giles said his home is his whole life and he has been through four previous fires.

Giles said he is one of two people who stayed on the mountain.

Giles claims he has been treated like a criminal, particularly by Metro Police. One officer asked him if he was trying to be a martyr. Giles said he was very upset about his treatment. He said he has stayed out of the way, not leaving his property for days at a time. He said he told one Metro officer that by law he could not be forcibly removed and the officer said, “Don’t start with me mister.”

Giles said he’s been keeping about 18 of his neighbors in the loop since many of them are frustrated about the amount of information available.

He said the main concern right now are the fires going from Rainbow Canyon to Harris Springs and the one on the South Slope between Griffith Saddle and Harris Peak, noting that those fires have been contained.

On Monday, fires came within 100 feet of the cabins in his area, but all the cabins were saved, he said. To the west of him between Mount Charlie and Cathedral Rock there are small fires but nothing to worry about, he said.

The last fire doubled his homeowner’s insurance, so he no longer pays it. Giles said there are a few others on the mountain who are also without insurance.

"There's no insurance to replace what I have and I'm a single man. All my little trinkets and toys are the only life I have,” he said.

Giles has been dousing his property with water constantly to protect his home. He said he doesn’t want to die for his property but he won’t leave until the fire might kill him. He has his truck packed and he’s ready to go if the fire gets too close.

After Monday night’s informational meeting at Centennial High, two Mount Charleston evacuees, Kerri Paniagua and Kim Koster, stood outside the school as plumes of orange, brown and gray smoke drifted to the northeast from the mountains, covering nearly half of the sky.

Click to enlarge photo

Kim Coster, right, and Kerri Paniagua were among the Mount Charleston evacuees who attended an informational meeting at Centennial High School on Monday night, July 8, 2013. Smoke from the vast wildfire turned a bright, fiery orange as the sun began to set behind the Spring Mountains.

“I don’t like to look at it,” Paniagua said, staring to the east, away from the thick smoke. “I have a lot of friends fighting it. My biggest worry is them. I don’t want to lose anyone up there who is putting their lives on the line to save our homes.”

Paniagua, who works at the Mount Charleston Visitors Center, said she was told by a Metro officer to leave about 5:30 p.m. Thursday.

She had to quickly pack up her four children, two dogs, two cats and a pet bird in a van and send them down the mountain. She came down in a second vehicle, bringing photos and memorabilia, leaving the 1,500-square-foot A-frame home she rents in the Rainbow subdivision to the elements.

“It was so surreal. I was just sick to my stomach,” she said of watching the smoke and waiting for word about whether her home has survived another day. “It’s devastating.”

Her two daughters, ages 20 and 15, and her sons, ages 14 and 7, plus all their pets, have been staying at a friend’s home in northwest Las Vegas.

Koster, who has a log cabin in the Echo residential subdivision of Kyle Canyon, said she has been living there for six years. She and her two sons, ages 19 and 8, and her 16-year-old daughter have been off the mountain since Thursday.

Both women said if local businesses wanted to help the evacuees, they could provide some free activities for children to give them something to do indoors during the day — such as an outing to Circus-Circus. Most of their children only packed a few items, not thinking they would be gone for very long, they said.

They both said the evacuees could also use some free coupons from restaurants. Many people are staying at area motels and are eating their meals at restaurants, they said.

Officials released a new phone number to get the latest information about the fire. The number, 702-799-4610, will be manned from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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