Las Vegas Sun

August 24, 2019

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Wildfires are not just a California problem

Northeast Nevada Wildfire

Ross Andreson / AP

Smoke billows from a wildfire Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018, that briefly trapped eight hikers atop Lamoille Canyon, about 12 miles southeast of Elko.

For generations, summer in Nevada has meant fire season. These days, it’s more accurate to call it a fire year.

Wildfire prevention tips

Obey all posted fire restrictions. These can include bans on building campfires and the use of charcoal stoves, fireworks, welding equipment and other devices that can spark fires.

• Call 911 if you see an unattended or out-of-control fire.

• Don’t leave fires unattended. Douse campfires with water and stir the ashes until they’re cold.

• Equip all-terrain vehicles and other off-road vehicles with spark arrestors.

• When using lanterns, stoves and heaters in outdoor areas, take care in lighting them. Make sure they are cool before refueling them, and store flammable liquids away from the equipment.

• Don’t toss cigarette butts out of the window while driving. Properly dispose of all smoking materials, along with charcoal briquettes and similar materials that can start fires, by soaking them first.

• Use only fireworks labeled with a “safe and sane” seal, and then only from June 28 through July 4.

That’s according to Kacey KC, state forester and fire warden with the Nevada Division of Forestry. For the past five years, Nevada has reported wildland fires just about every month, KC said, and Clark County is no exception.

“We’ve traditionally had fire season from May to October. But in recent years, because of the drought, it hasn’t really been a season. It’s been kind of year-round,” said Clark County Assistant Fire Chief Larry Haydu. 

In the age of climate change and global environmental change, fire season throughout the West has become longer, more pronounced and sometimes more volatile. For Southern Nevadans, the shifts mean more wildfires at home and more smoke and particulate matter from faraway wildfires in California and Arizona, worsening our region’s already-troubled air quality.

California wildfires expected to be worse

In the summer and fall of 2018, as California battled some of its most destructive wildfires ever, Clark County issued 18 air quality advisories influenced by smoke drifting into the Valley, said Kevin MacDonald, spokesperson for the Clark County Department of Air Quality. Some of those advisories were influenced by wildfire smoke from Arizona as well.

“There were days when we would step outside and couldn’t see the mountains in every direction,” MacDonald said.

Wildfire smoke produces particulate matter and the precursors to ozone, two of the main ground-level pollutants that harm air quality in Clark County and can be dangerous to human health.

The Division of Forestry sent 171 firefighters to assist with last year’s wildfires in California, said John Christopherson, Forestry’s deputy administrator of operations. Historically, the Nevada Department of Corrections has sent inmates to help with the fight.

As California’s wildfire season heats up in the coming months, the Division of Forestry might once again send crews to the neighboring state. Some experts warn that California could see even more intense fires than those of 2018.

“If the need arises again, and in all likelihood it will … we’ll be helping our neighbors to the West,” Christopherson said.

Reduce your risk

The wildfire risk in highly developed parts of the Las Vegas Valley is relatively low because of protection from fire departments, building codes that promote fire safety, etc. However, especially in outlying areas, homeowners can take steps to reduce their risk of wildfires. Among them:

• Keep roofs, gutters and areas around homes clear of dead leaves, pine needles and other dry organic waste.

• Store away patio furniture cushions, mats and other flammables.

• Trim back any tree branches overhanging roofs, and cut back shrubs and trees that are within close proximity to homes.

• Plan an evacuation route, prepare a checklist and create a pack of emergency supplies.

• If ordered to evacuate, do so immediately after putting on protective clothing and footwear. Remove all combustibles from outside the home—firewood, yard waste, propane tanks in grills, etc. Shut off natural gas and close all windows, vents and doors to prevent drafts.

When they aren’t deployed to California, Nevada firefighters are kept busy at home. About half of the Forestry’s budget is spent fighting wildfires, and the increase in fires at home recently forced the division to extend the length of time it deploys seasonal firefighters from five to seven months, KC said.

In Nevada, a higher risk down south

This year, fire season in Clark County started late because of an unusually wet spring. The National Weather Service issued its first red flag warnings, indicating an elevated risk of wildfire, for Clark County on June 26 and 27. At the same time in 2018, the NWS had already issued five red flag warnings, meteorologist John Adair said.

But moving into the rest of the summer, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction: Wildfire risk, typically high in northern and western parts of the state but not in Southern Nevada, is also high in Clark County this year, KC said.

The reasons? The slow start of the monsoon season and the fact that the heavy spring rains that kept fire risk low earlier this year also caused low-lying grasses to sprout in areas where they aren’t historically found.

The grasses’ growth near larger plants and trees provides ideal fuel for wildfires. Grass won’t necessarily make fires more likely to ignite, but it will make them more likely to spread and intensify, Haydu said.

“If you look out at the Nevada landscape, we have bush here, bush there, but there’s nothing to connect those bushes,” Haydu said. “But this year, in between those bushes, we have grass. So now we have a blanket of fuel.”

One of the most common “fuels” in Southern Nevada is the invasive red brome grass, which is spreading throughout the Mojave Desert, said Stan Smith, emeritus professor in the UNLV life sciences department.

Red brome has a longer life span than native grasses and is more adept at obtaining resources, KC said, making it difficult for native plants to keep up with the invasive weed’s spread after a fire.

“It’s harder and harder to get natives to take in these environments, as they’ve been burned so many times,” KC added.

Fire management for the future

Historically, efforts to suppress fires in the West have intensified the problem, Smith noted. Fire suppression has increased tree density in forests, so that now, when a fire does ignite, it spreads faster and does more damage.

“So what foresters are saying is the answer is to thin forests: [Remove] the small stuff and leave the big trees,” Smith said.

Smith acknowledged that thinning out Southern Nevada’s largest forest area, the Spring Mountains, could be challenging because of the steep terrain there. But it might be necessary considering that wildfire risk is generally rising in high desert areas.

“All the different forest communities in the mountains, they’re burning more because of climate change,” Smith said. “Especially when it gets drier and warmer, they get drier and they’re more combustible and more flammable.”

Foresters are now learning that after a fire, it is more challenging for wildlands to regenerate and they cannot always support the same vegetation they did hundreds of years ago when the previous wildland first formed. What will replace these old forests and trees is up for debate, but it probably won’t be the same large, old growth trees, Smith said.

“That has all kinds of societal implications for people who like to get out and recreate. They want to go out to the mountains and see a beautiful forest,” Smith said.

Because of the uncertainty of plant regeneration, the Division of Forestry is rethinking its long-term rehabilitation plans, KC said, even confronting the question of what level of invasive grasses are “acceptable” given their persistence in the environment.

For Smith, this type of planning in anticipation of changing wildlands and the changing climate is crucial to fighting wildfires today and in the future.

“We have to use all the tools in the toolbox to try to solve it,” he said.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.