Cheatgrass could make for wind-driven grass fires | SierraSun.com

Cheatgrass could make for wind-driven grass fires

Kurt Hildebrand
khildebrand@recordcourier.com

A wet winter is bringing a bumper crop of cheatgrass, and it won't take many warm, sunny days for it to dry out and join the fuels already stacked up waiting for a spark.

"There's a potential for large, low-elevation, wind-driven grass fires," East Fork Battalion Chief Larry Goss said. "It depends on how fast and when we see heat. We're anticipating that it will dry out the end of June or July. It all depends on the rain and the intensity of the heat rise. If there's not a break after this week's heat spell, it could dry out faster."

So far, 2017 has been the fourth wettest on record, with 15.57 inches of precipitation falling since Jan. 1, according to National Weather Service files dating to 1906.

But the last rain to be recorded in Minden was on May 7.

After a wet year, a lightning strike in May would be unlikely to set off a wildfire, but firefighters say last year's crop of cheatgrass is dry enough to serve as tinder.

East Fork Fire Capt. Terry Taylor said firefighters doing investigation training at Minden-Tahoe Airport said the grass is ready to burn.

Recommended Stories For You

As part of the course, firefighters use various means to light fires.

"Even though it was wet out, at 2 p.m. we were getting 80 percent ignition with the devices we use," he said. "It blew us all away. We threw a road flare into a little bit of sage brush that was soaking wet and got 8-10-foot flame lengths. It will burn if there's something dry underneath."

The wet winter also left lots of pooled water in the area around the Minden-Tahoe airport, Taylor said.

"There's pooled water everywhere, and that can attract an increase in lightning strikes," he said.

That area's sandy soils typically allow water to soak in quickly.

"A lot of places where the water settles through, it isn't," Taylor said. "The fine clay and silt that came out of the mountains is keeping water standing on a big area from Stephanie to Highway 395."

Goss said the Pine Nut Mountains could see serious fires this year, thanks to a combination of new light fuels and stressed piñon trees.

"There's a potential there for larger fuels to burn, especially the piñons and junipers in the Pine Nuts," he said. "Even though it has been a big water year, doesn't mean those fuels have recovered."

The same could be said for the Carson Range of the Sierra, which hasn't seen a big fire in Douglas County since 1996.

Last summer, there were several fire starts along the interface between homes and the mountains. Quick reactions among residents and workers, backed up by firefighters, helped keep those fires small.

Staying fire safe

East Fork Fire Chief Tod Carlini said there are still lots of places where homes meet the wildland that have significant fuels.

"If there's one thing, we want people to consider the defensible space around their homes," he said. "It's one thing people can do to help us help them."

Carlini said while a lot of the Pine Nuts' upper slopes have been reduced to cheatgrass, there's a lot of unburned area in the mid-slope areas.

"We've been fortunate that the mid-slope areas in the interface have not been burned," he said. "We're very vulnerable there, and we need to pound the drum to encourage people to really think about defensible space, especially in the Pine Nuts and Foothill."

Carlini said defensible space is critical to helping firefighters protect homes in a big fire.

"Otherwise, we have to make some tough decisions, and we don't like having to do that."

Goss said the best way to avoid a big fire isn't to let one start in the first place.

"It all boils down to starts," he said. "We want people to be careful with what they're doing on a daily basis, such as using chainsaws and doing other things in light fuels."

Residents can prepare for fire season by clearing away brush and other flammable material from 30 feet around their homes.

For information on how to prepare for wildfires, visit http://www.livingwithfire.com.

Help from neighbors critical in big fires

Douglas County's biggest wildland fire in 2016 claimed a home and other structures after a wall of flames driven by high winds crossed a field of dry grass and jumped the East Fork of the Carson River.

The Oct. 2 Frontage Road fire was a key example of how East Fork Fire District relies on surrounding agencies to help stop big blazes, but it also demonstrated how wildfires sometimes move faster than those resources can be brought to bear.

In the case of the Frontage Fire, it was nearly an hour before the closest outside fire engine arrived at the blaze south of Gardnerville.

By the end of the day, there were nearly three dozen engines from Carson City, Bureau of Land Management, Tahoe Douglas, Antelope Valley, Reno, Truckee Meadows, Storey, Lake Valley, Mono, Alpine, Incline, Nevada Division of Forestry and Smith Valley Fire.

Carlini said if not for the help of surrounding agencies, most single Western Nevada departments' firefighters could easily be overwhelmed in a large fire.

Carlini said while he expects full response to fires occurring in the Sierra Front, sending firefighters to blazes farther away will be a challenge this season.

"Some of the responses for out of state and regionally, overall, could see some metering back," Carlini said.

The potential lateness of the fire season could contribute to that.

He said several of the districts' managers have earned certification to serve on National Type II fire teams.

"It speaks highly for our guys and our organization," he said. "But I think it's going to be a little more of a challenge this year on what we can provide."