Last August, lightning sparked 14 fires in one day in Elko County. Across Nevada, more than 1 million acres burned in 2017 and again in 2018. Some fires were more than 100,000 acres in size. 2019 was not as severe a fire season, but the novel coronavirus pandemic has changed the way fire officials will fight wildfires in 2020.
At this week’s Elko County Board of Commissioners meeting, fire emergency managers told Elko County Commissioners that increased air tactics and aggressive team responses for all wildfires, even those with low-priority status, are among the changes being implemented this year.
Although the 2020 fire season is predicted to be normal by the Geographic Area Coordination Center, Fire District Administrator Linda Bingaman and her team expect that to change come June.
“We have not received enough snow this year, so there’s not a lot of snowpack,” Bingaman said. “That leaves all of the grasses and fine fuels from last year still standing. Then we have the spring bringing up new grass.”
These two sets of grasses, in addition to the state being below average on water levels this year, creates an opportunity for the fire season to start one month ahead of schedule.
“Our live fuel moistures are down, which is not a good way to start our fire season,” Bingaman said.
Bingaman cited the fact that fire activity has already started in the area, with White Pine County seeing a fire that consumed 1,118 acres of land. An additional 14 wildland fires have also been responded to in the last couple of months.
Although recent rains will help dampen the likelihood of new fires starting, rains also bring up a new crop of grass that can fuel fires later on in the season.
In order to respond to wildfires, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) typically brings in additional resources from outside the state as they prepare for an upcoming fire season. This year, however, that process has become complicated by the Covid-19 outbreak.
“They’re predicting that Washington, California, and Oregon are going to have significant potential for fire danger this year,” Bingaman said. “So we’re anticipating that we’re going to have a really hard time getting additional resources.”
In light of the Covid-19 outbreak, Bingaman predicts states will want to keep their fire-response resources in-state. There have already been instances this year where Type 1 Incident Management Teams, who typically respond to higher-risk fires, have declined to combat a wildfire in fear of exposing their firefighters to Covid-19. Consequently, new best management practices have been developed to determine how best to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 when combating wildfires.
The first step, Bingaman said, is to continue the nationwide practice of social distancing.
“If you’ve ever been to a fire camp, you know there’s a lot of people there,” Bingaman said. “The goal is that if you’re out [fighting] a fire, instead of coming back to camp to spend the night, you’re going to camp where you are and find your own place where everybody’s going to be split up.”
This process will be different from methods used in the past, where large open spaces like county fairgrounds were used to set up a large camp for everyone. This year, teams of firefighters will be spread out across town in hotels and other locations.
When going out into the field, firefighters will be expected to take care of themselves with the necessary amount of rations and equipment to last their first 72 hours, an extension of the 48 hour timetable that was previously the standard norm.
Meetings that plan for how wildfires will be addressed will primarily be done over the phone or through Zoom, in order to limit unnecessary contact and observe social distancing.
“If we should happen to have a positive case [of Covid-19] or someone should get sick, it probably will take that whole truck out of service,” Bingaman said. “Or if one person leaves the truck, they’re not going to try to cross and bring people from other trucks onto their truck. They will keep it as a one truck, one unit concept so that they can try to protect people as best as possible.”
Firefighters that will be staying at local hotels and other locations will be advised to order take out food, but not eat in the restaurants they order food from. This way, Bingaman hopes, they can still support the local economy while limiting the amount of public interaction that can increase the risk of Covid-19 infections. These guidelines will be applied to all incoming teams, whether they are Type 1 or Type 3 teams.
“[Our response to wildfires] may look different, you’re going to see people more spread out,” Bingaman said. “There may be less people that come in from out of state, but we’re still going to hit [wildfires] as hard as we always do.”
More aggressive changes will also be put in place when responding to a potential new wildfire. Typically, a more aggressive response with more trucks would only be called for with a moderate-risk fire. However, the plan now is to send out more trucks earlier in the fire-response process to put the wildfire out as soon as possible, even for low-priority wildfires.
“Hopefully we can keep [wildfires] from getting big to where we have to have more people respond,” Bingaman said.
Commissioner Demar Dahl said he wants to ensure the precautions taken surrounding Covid-19 do not hamper the ability to effectively respond to and put out wildfires.
“Firefighters are generally young and healthy, so their risk is probably really minimal,” Dahl said. “Of course, they can still carry [Covid-19], but we don’t want to lose sight of our mission to put out the fires by being too cautious about the virus.”
Dahl was encouraged by the intended approach of attacking wildfires aggressively and early, particularly with air power.
“Last year we were better at [attacking early and from the air] than we’ve ever been before,” Dahl said. “But we still have room for improvement.”
A continued and improved air response to wildfires will play a key role in BLM’s strategy this year as well.
“BLM is looking to increase the amount of helicopters this year,” Matt Murphy, BLM Elko Fuels Program Manager, said. “So we’re looking at getting additional helicopters back into the state, above and beyond what we had last year. That is one of our greatest opportunities to increase the capacity there and help us out with additional attack.”
BLM is also looking at implementing targeted grazing projects to mitigate the spread and likelihood of wildfires.
“[BLM] has a lot of the pilot projects all over the West, but certainly some [in the Elko District], with the outcome-based grazing and targeted grazing projects,” Gerald Dixon, Elko District Manager for BLM, said. “These are big, larger efforts that we hope to use as tools in the future to help us streamline some of our own local projects going on here.”
A three-tiered process in regards to targeted grazing strategies is currently being implemented by BLM. The first tier of data gathering will support the second tier of planning, which is happening now.
“That third element is where I want to get to, and that’s the implementation, monitoring and maintenance [of the project],” Dixon said. “We’re not quite to that third piece yet, other than the pilot projects that are happening.”
An additional strategy of digging roughly 11,000 miles of firebreaks across Oregon, Nevada, and Idaho is also currently being explored alongside human-started fire prevention awareness campaigns. Traditionally, fire prevention teams around the state would hand out materials during their campaigns. But due to the Covid-19 outbreak, fire prevention messaging will largely be done across social media, PSAs, radio, and television mediums.
“We’re going to be changing the way we do business a little bit with that, trying to limit that person-to-person contact on a statewide basis,” Murphy said. “We’re starting a little earlier than normal, just trying to get that messaging out and prevent the opportunity for human-started fires that may go large.”
Scott King is a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno, pursuing his Master’s degree in Media Innovation. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Scott recently returned from Grenada, where he served for two years as a literacy teacher with the Peace Corps. Support his work in the Ally.