Prescribed fire in the Sierra Nevada. Resource managers with the U.S. Forest Service and other management agencies use controlled fires to clear dead vegetation and low-lying brush from a forest, lowering the risk that future wildfires will have enough fuel to grow to dangerous sizes - photo: Eric Knapp/US Forest Service

After a dry winter, fire response agencies across Nevada have acquired additional assets and have announced fire restriction measures as they prepare for an above-average fire season this summer. Despite social-distancing practices and health precautions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the agencies are confident they have enough resources to meet the challenge.

“All agencies have hired our seasonal firefighters for service,” Kacey KC of the Nevada Division of Forestry said. “We have all of our engines of the Division of Forestry and all of our offices are staffed with our fire staff. We’re trying to keep them socially distant and we do have measures in place, but they are available for immediate response, as are our three helicopters down in the hangar.”

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has hired 21 additional firefighters, while the Humboldt-Toiyabe US Forest Service has converted 18 seasonal firefighters to a seasonal status.

In addition to an increased number of firefighters, agencies have contracted more helicopters to bolster their air support to combat fires. Two helicopters have been contracted for the Humboldt-Toiyabe Forest, a Type One and a Type Two chopper, both to be based out of Minden. The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit also acquired a Type One helicopter to be based in South Lake Tahoe as an additional asset.

These assets will be complemented by 14 new fire cameras placed around the state, on top of the 39 fire cameras that have already been in place for early detection purposes. 

KC anticipates these additional assets will play a vital role as the state of Nevada prepares for an above-normal fire season, evidence of which the state is already seeing.

“We’re seeing a very active fire season with fires that are showing extreme behavior for this early in the season,” KC said. “We’ve had 142 fires so far this year, burning up just shy of 10,000 acres.”

KC attributes the extreme fire behavior due to a dry winter across most of the state. Outside of high elevation snowpack, there has not been enough moisture to tamp down fuel loads left from the winter prior to this one. These conditions have been compounded by a budding drought in the area.

“We have had very little precipitation in the last 30 days, with above normal temperatures,” KC said. “In some portions of the state [we’ve had] record-setting temperatures, so that has rapidly dried out our lower elevation fuels.”

Considering the drought conditions being experienced throughout the state, predictions point to an above-average fire season for the southern part of the state beginning in the month June. The rest of the state is predicted to go into above-normal conditions for most of July, spreading from the south to the north and northwest parts of the state. Consequently, KC expects to see a higher-risk fire season this year compared to what Nevada experienced last year.

“Last year we got really lucky and saw just over 82,000 acres [burned] in the state,” KC said. “So we’re prepared to try to quickly suppress these fires.” 

Chris Smallcomb, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, agrees the low precipitation levels from this winter increases Nevada’s risk for a more active fire season.

“Since our winter precipitation was so low, that starts opening up higher terrain and larger vegetation for fires,” Smallcomb said. “This being compared to the previous years when we had tons of moisture in the mountains that [helped stifle] fires.” 

According to Smallcomb’s summer weather outlook, it’s too early to tell whether Nevada will have a wet or dry summer. But what he is seeing is that above-normal temperatures are expected across the state. Therefore, there is a greater push to educate the public about Red Flag Warning days, which are announced when there’s high winds, low humidity or a high risk for dry lightning. 

“Our Red Flag Warning is the bread and butter of the National Weather Service,” Smallcomb said. “When we issue those, they allow our partners for fire services to get ready for the days that if fires do start, they could grow rapidly and get out of control quickly.”

The National Weather Service can typically identify high wind or low humidity days four or five days in advance. Thunderstorms or dry lightning days can be more difficult to anticipate, however, with sometimes as little notice as 12 hours.

This is important as elements like dry lightning can trigger the release of high-energy components in fire fuels, according to Paul Petersen of the BLM Nevada State Fire Management Office.

“Right now in southern Nevada energy release components are at an 85-90 percent, putting those fuels at a critical status,” Petersen said.

On the Sierra Mountain front of western Nevada, energy release components are currently registering between 65-75 percent. Meanwhile, the 55-85 percent energy release components registering in northern and eastern Nevada is about three to four weeks ahead of schedule in the typical fire season.

“While those percentiles are high, we don’t need a 90th percentile to see large fires,” Petersen said. “The result of that is fire behavior like what we saw on May 10, when we had a campfire that [spread] outside of Spring Valley that burned 1,100 acres in one burn period.”

Due to the higher-risk conditions being registered, Nevada has implemented fire restrictions with federal and state agencies for the first time. The fire restrictions require that any campfires or barbecue fires outside of existing campgrounds, picnic areas, or improved campsites be attended to at all times and be clear six-feet from vertical vegetation.

“Any smoking on public lands, welding with acetylene torch with open flames, or the discharge of fireworks, tracer rounds and exploding targets are always illegal in the state of Nevada,” Petersen said. “We just encourage the public to recreate responsibly when they’re out.”

The general public will play a key role in determining how many fires agencies have to respond to this year. According to Gwen Sanchez of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest Fire Management Office, approximately 37 percent of fires responded to over the past decade in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest were human-caused.

“Last year that [human-caused fires] number was higher at 41 percent,” Sanchez said. “So the public can help us by doing their part to prevent those human-caused incidents. That would decrease the amount of fires that we would need to respond to and really help keep our firefighters stay safe and protected as we go forward through the summer.”

To help ensure the public’s support in these efforts, the Forest Service will be implementing firewood-cutting restrictions in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

“These restrictions include what is known as a ‘1 p.m. Rule,’ which says after 1 p.m. during a Red Flag Warning, no more wood cutting,” Sanchez said. “We want you to have all of your activities wrapped up and completed by 1 p.m. to reduce the potential of lighting or starting a fire as a result of human activities.”

Similar measures are also being put in place in the Lake Tahoe Basin, where a moderate drought is currently underway. The drought is a cause for high-concern due to the increased risk of fire potential, especially in July and August. 

“Unlike the Nevada desert, a large fire in the Lake Tahoe Basin is considered to be any fire over ten acres,” Carrie Thaler of the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit’s Forest Fire Office said. “Timber is the driving fuel in the Lake Tahoe Basin and right now the timber is very dry, especially at the higher elevations.”

Consequently, fire restrictions became effective in the Lake Tahoe Basin on May 30. The restrictions include that campfires are only permissible on hosted and developed recreation sites and campgrounds. Any campfires must also be within a metal fire ring. 

These restrictions are in place to mitigate the number of abandoned campfires, which is the number one cause of fires in the Lake Tahoe Basin. 

“We ask the public to help us by only having campfires in the authorized location and by thoroughly dousing your campfires with water before going to bed or going out on a hike,” Thaler said. “If you come upon an abandoned campfire that is still burning or smoking in the forest, call 911.”

Thaler also encouraged that families ensure their homes are prepared for fires, complete with evacuation plans in the event a fire breaks out in their community. 

When fires inevitably do break out, response teams will operate with a module one concept.

“That means whatever group you’re assigned to, you’re going to identify yourself as a module and try to stay within that module,” Dave Cochran, Nevada Fire Chiefs Association President and Reno Fire Department Chief, said. “The idea there is to isolate a potential exposure or infection [of COVID-19] to that module from the rest of the firefighting force.”

Firefighters are also going to have sanitizing equipment and personal protective gear to protect themselves from potential exposure to the virus. As firefighters are stationed in camps when they respond to area fires, they will be practicing social distancing measures and avoid congregating with crowds.

“As we get to our assigned fire, we’re going to minimize the number of interactions we have with people,” Cochran said. “This means no trips into town or trips from locals into the fire camp. The idea is to quarantine that module one concept and make sure we limit the amount of exposure and maintain that firefighting force.”

Maintaining a strong firefighting force will be especially important during this high-risk season.

“Fire doesn’t really care if there’s a pandemic,” Cochran said.

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.