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April 17, 2014

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Operations scaling down as containment of wildfire reaches 80 percent

Despite headway, Mount Charleston expected to burn for months

Image

Steve Marcus

A fire crew puts out hot spots after a burnout in the Rainbow subdivision on Mount Charleston Tuesday, July 9, 2013.

Updated Monday, July 15, 2013 | 8 p.m.

July 14: Mount Charleston Fire

Thank you posters are displayed on an information board at Centennial High School Sunday, July 14, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Mount Charleston Fire

A man who declined to be identified waits out an evacuation for a fire on Mount Charleston Thursday, July 1, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Firefighters have reached 80 percent containment of the nearly 28,000-acre wildfire on Mount Charleston, readying the area for handoff to local authorities later this week, officials announced Monday evening.

More than 800 firefighters remain engaged in suppression of the wildfire, which, to date, has cost an estimated $16.5 million, said Larry Helmerick, a public information officer with the incident management team.

On Tuesday, firefighters will increase mop-up efforts to include all divisions, a milestone Helmerick called “outstanding news.” That means firefighters will be extinguishing small fires and removing possible fire fuels in areas up to 500 feet from control lines.

Authorities on Tuesday also will be working on a structure protection plan and a long-term analysis of the fire area, Helmerick said.

“We’ll do everything we can while we are here,” he said.

Even so, officials concede the mountain's highest elevations will continue to smolder into the fall and winter.

Fire officials plan to allow the nearly 300 evacuated residents of Kyle Canyon back into their homes Wednesday morning and then begin transitioning to a smaller and locally controlled command size before opening the mountain Friday morning, fire spokesman Jon Kohn said.

And though fire crews expect to reach 90 percent containment on the blaze by Wednesday, Kohn said firefighters are hard-pressed to battle fires in the precarious high-elevation areas and essentially plan to wait the fire out — a process that could take months.

"The fire's not going to become much more than 90 percent contained until the snow flies," Kohn said.

Fire crews are relatively confident that the fire won't spread to additional areas, though it remains partially uncontained, Fire Strategic Operational Planner Corky Conover said. The chances of the fire spreading are around 5 percent, Kohn said.

Conover developed a worst-case-scenario map showcasing plans in case the fire does spread. He said firefighters have already dug prevention lines and mapped out a perimeter that would keep the fire from spreading to residential areas or other parts of the mountain.

Kohn said residents returning to their homes throughout the week may be spooked by far-off smoke and visible fire but should remain calm as the burning area is still relatively isolated. Help from monsoon season, as well as limited places for the fire to burn, should help fire officials control the rest of the fire, Conover said.

"It's just like a campfire," he said. "If you don't put more logs on there, eventually it will burn itself out."

The incident command team, which runs fire operations, will demobilize and transfer control to a smaller operation run by local authorities on Friday. Those authorities will still have access to whatever engines, crews or air support is needed, Kohn said. The operation will continue running until the fire is extinguished, he said.

Due to demobilization of the bulk of firefighters, the operating base will move from its present location at Centennial High School to another, undetermined location, Kohn said. No more community meetings regarding the fire are scheduled, he said.

With the fire seemingly wrapping up, fire authorities, such as planner Dan Mindor, are starting to look for future silver linings from the blaze. Mindor said that about half of the area burned actually helped clear overgrowth and "decadent" areas of the forest, which allows for a better environment for wildlife and decreases future fire danger.

Mindor said that low-lying areas of the fire will take around five years to regrow, but it may take upwards of 100 years for higher-elevation areas to fully recover, Mindor said. That could prove useful in the future, as fires in later years will have much less fuel and area in which to spread, he said.

Fires of this size and intensity only occur every few centuries, he said.

"We may have witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Mindor said.

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