Wildfires in northern Nevada might look a little different this summer than in years past.
Fire managers say Nevada, known mostly for its expansive and fast-moving rangeland fires in the Great Basin and Sierra Foothills, appears poised for an active fire season at higher elevation in the state’s forests and more wooded areas.
Things will likely start out calm, experts from the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management said, but by July fire season in the Silver State is expected to be at full steam.
“To sum it up, we are looking at an above average fire season this year … as we get into later June and specifically into July, we are looking at above normal fire conditions for most of northern Nevada and the Sierra Front as we just don’t have a lot of moisture,” said Gwen Sanchez, fire management officer for the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest.
The concern is the state of fuels in Nevada’s forests.
Historically, as you went up in elevation in Nevada, vegetation becomes more moist and the likelihood of a large-scale fire decreases. Thanks to this winter’s low snowpack, Sanchez said that’s not the case for summer 2020.
“I expect that you are going to see large fires at all elevations this summer, including the higher elevations within our area,” Sanchez said.
Her peers at the Bureau of Land Management — who are responsible for much of Nevada’s rangeland — have noticed a similar shift.
“I’m anticipating that we are going to see a more tree type (fire) year as opposed to a brush type (fire) year,” said Ryan Elliott, the battalion chief in charge of fire investigations and fire management at the Carson City Bureau of Land Management office.
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His office has been keeping tabs on the volatility of valley grasses in the region, and has seen good signs.
New grass growth is lower than average this year due to the region’s below-average winter, which limits the potential for the large-scale and quick-spreading grassland fires we’ve seen in recent years, Elliott said.
There’s some areas — such as Palomino Valley and Wadsworth — that didn’t have much snowfall to compact grass, leaving it to burn this fire season, but by and large the rest of the region’s grasslands are not too large of a concern.
But look higher on the slopes, and things look a little more ominous.
The snowpack is disappearing from the mountains quickly and grasses on higher slopes are drying out fast.
A fire burns near Red Rock on August. 24, 2019. Reno Gazette-Journal
In years like this, Elliott said, there’s typically a shift from rangeland fires to forest fires.
For firefighters, this shift means more longer duration fires are a possibility this year. Rangeland fires typically get big quick but last a short amount of time — fires on forested lands can go on for weeks or even months, as that fuel can hold heat longer.
That’s a concerning reality for fire managers, who in the age of COVID-19 are doing everything they can to stave off a prolonged fight, which could expose potentially hundreds of firefighters and support personnel to the virus.
Both Sanchez and Elliott said people need to be extra vigilant while recreating this year.
Pay attention to fire restrictions — which have been implemented on much of the state’s public land — and be careful while target shooting or off roading.
“The fewer of those little fires we have to go to, the more likely it is we get to the meat of fire season,” Elliott said. “You know, June, July or August when we need to have our guys out there and exposure is inevitable. We need to save our strength for that.”
Sam Gross is a breaking news reporter for the Reno Gazette Journal who covers wildfires, emergencies and more. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com.
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