Floriston fire indicates start of potentially dangerous fire season

Associated Press

As crews continue to battle the first wildfire of the season in the Reno-Tahoe area, officials say fire restrictions might be needed sooner than usual because of a heat wave that’s quickly drying out grass and brush.

Firefighters were hoping to put out the 15-acre wildfire along Interstate 80 near Floriston by late Tuesday. The fire threatened no homes, but reduced I-80 to one westbound lane after it broke out Sunday. Its cause is under investigation.

In past years, backcountry travel restrictions and bans on open campfires and smoking outside vehicles have not gone into effect until after the Fourth of July.

But with well-above-normal temperatures over the last week and a forecast calling for more lightning than last year, officials said the restrictions are needed to deal with a potentially active fire season.

“The fire sent a message that the fire season is here,” said Leonard Wehking, fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management’s Carson field office.

“The fire situation has changed dramatically in two weeks. We jumped right from winter to ‘it’s an oven now.’ If we keep going at the rate we’re going, we’ll have restrictions by mid-month for sure,” Wehking added.

Ronan Thornhill, fire management officer for the Nevada Division of Forestry, said he expects his agency to declare the official start of the fire season in Nevada in the next week or so because of drying grasses and shrubs.

The fire season officially began Monday in most of California.

“Some of the biggest fires we’ve seen the last couple of years have come in June,” Thornhill said. “The way things are burning so far, I think we’ll have to put in restrictions earlier than usual.”

The June 2001 “Martis” fire blackened some 14,500 acres east of Truckee, while the June 2002 “Cannon” fire charred nearly 23,000 acres near Walker, Calif.

Last year produced few lightning storms and the 84,200 acres that burned were a fraction of the previous year’s 601,000 acres.

Dangerous fuel conditions and severe lightning combined to cause Nevada’s epic fire season of 1999, when 1.6 million acres were blackened.

While a repeat of that event is unlikely, fire officials are gearing up for a busy season.

Wehking’s BLM fire crews and engines already are working seven days a week to be ready. Other agencies plan to follow suit in the next week or so.

One of I-80’s two westbound lanes was shut down during the intial response to Sunday’s fire before it reopened later in the afternoon, the Nevada Highway Patrol said.

Fire spokeswoman Helen Frazier said it was the first wildfire more than an acre in size this season along the eastern Sierra Nevada between Doyle and Bridgeport.

The blaze was burning in steep, rocky terrain on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Winds were not a problem to firefighters.

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