Photo Credit: Plume of smoke seen from the road. Photo by Tracy Visher
Written By: Tracy Visher, Deputy Executive Director, Nevada Land Trust
I headed out of the office a few weeks ago for an errand in Spanish Springs, just north of Reno. As I got on the freeway in Reno, I saw the plume of smoke from the Virginia Range. At first I thought it was in Hidden Valley, but the curve of the freeway soon showed me it was up behind the Northern Nevada Medical Center, to the left of the big “S” on the hill in Sparks.
This is it, I thought—a fire of a scale and visibility that will be the “real” start of our summer wildfire season. As I drove and watched the fire race up to the ridgeline, I also thought that this could be what we need: a local fire spectacular enough for all to see, to remind us about living with wildfire and move it to the forefront of local conversation. Somehow the recent Hawken II Fire didn’t quite do that, other than for the responders and the residents at the bottom of that fire’s footprint. It moved uphill and was out of sight and mind all too quickly.
As an old timer fireman told me last year, “The further we are from one disaster, the closer we are to the next one.” As we learned with the Caughlin Fire in November of 2011 and the Washoe Drive Fire in January of 2012, fire season in Truckee Meadows is not restricted to summer. With years of drought under our belts, fire in northern Nevada is now a 12-month season. So what have we learned? Has our behavior as individual homeowners been altered by what we have seen? How can we learn from each wildfire we encounter as a community?
In Nevada, over 80 percent of the land is public. These public lands include national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, monuments and wilderness. For the past 100 years, the national agency strategy for fire suppression has focused on putting fires out as soon as they start. This has become an ever-larger issue with the incursion of human residences into the wildland-urban interface (WUI). It’s no secret that the Western US has seen quite a few “mega-fires,” and scientists are now also saying that Reno, Nevada is the fastest warming city in the West since 1965.
Nevada Land Trust (NLT) has spent the better part of the past year meeting with agency partners, Living With Fire leadership and the advisory board of the Nevada FAC Network to learn about the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy and how we might facilitate its implementation in Nevada. At this point, you might be wondering why we care. We are Nevada’s first “home grown” land conservation and protection non-profit organization, and we’ve been here since 1998. Many have wondered, isn’t this mission scope creep? NO! There is every reason for us to care! What happens in a fire? If your property is at risk, you are thinking about saving your kids, pets, family mementos and things you feel you can’t replace. We are thinking about watershed erosion and wildlife destruction—the same idea but on a different scale. It is all habitat we are committed to protecting!
Starting last September, NLT was fortunate to be invited to participate in the national Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, whose members are striving to make their communities more fire adapted. Fire adapted communities are one of the goals of the Cohesive Strategy, but what does that look like in Nevada?
The Sierra Nevada Range includes the watershed for the Truckee River, which flows roughly 120 miles from its headwaters at Lake Tahoe, California to the mouth of Pyramid Lake in Nevada. The Truckee River Watershed drains 3,060 square miles and is part of a terminal watershed between the lakes. This area along the “Sierra Front” is home to many of NLT’s historical conservation activities.
I recently learned that in 2008, prior to Reno’s three largest fires and the existence of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, the nationally award-winning Washoe County Open Space Plan called out the need to address wildfire:
“Severity and frequency of wildfires have grown above natural levels. These fires threaten property and lives as well as rare and critical biodiversity. The reasons for growth in wildfire are complex and varied, but generally are due to increases in wildfire fuels due to invasive species and to past management practices. However, increased development in the growing wildland urban interface also contributes greatly to this challenge.
These catastrophic fires bring with them an additional danger. Once the fire is out, recently burned areas may immediately sprout with non-native invasive species that are more prone to fires and, in some cases, may even move into an annual burning cycle. Additionally, burn areas have a greater potential for increased flash flooding and soil erosion.
The region’s fire history shows how over the past century most, if not all, of southern Washoe County has burned at some point. Researchers have found that the Sierra Nevada forests in the western portion of the county have very wide ranges of both burn severity and frequency. While natural, low-intensity burns were always part of the ecosystem, the Sierra Nevada region also naturally experienced large catastrophic fires occasionally, though rarely. Fires throughout the region are predominantly ignited by lightning strikes, though a third or more of the fires are started by human activity, including construction activity, campfires, sparks from vehicles, and arson. Fires occur increasingly in areas that include residential development. This adds to the potential for ignition, contributes more fuels, and creates a scenario where fire crews may risk their lives in unsafe conditions to protect homes. The increased development in the wildland interface means that homeowners play an increasingly important role in the fire safety and ecology of our region.”
I was excited when I read this excerpt! I thought, this is great—there is already an educated group of politicians and county employees who get it! Since 2009, the award-winning education and outreach program from University of Nevada Reno Cooperative Extension, “Living With Fire,” has been working in Washoe County to educate our residents about their role in this equation. With their ongoing heroic efforts, I would say Washoe County Parks and Open Spaces is one of the only groups with an active program for fuels mitigation. This has occurred largely through noxious weed spraying. The primary cities of Reno and Sparks have not been engaged, and rumor has it that much of the local fire service doesn’t think we have a WUI issue!?
Following the Washoe Drive and Caughlin Ranch fires in 2011 and 2012, respectively, NLT was retained to manage post-fire restoration efforts. We were at the table when the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) teams met because our natural resource specialist had just left the county open space program.
Fast forward to summer of 2015 when NLT was approached about working on the Cohesive Strategy and partnering with Living With Fire to provide the last missing pieces of fiscal and field management in communities that could make a new FAC Network for Nevada a reality. Now we could utilize our resources and expertise to get in front of the fires, and not just try to help with restoration efforts after the fact.
NLT is looking at partnering with Living With Fire to begin a Washoe County pilot program in order to close the circle of support for Washoe County neighborhoods that are interested in becoming more fire adapted. Our county, state and federal fire agencies are working with us to figure out how we can make this happen. We all know that the work we do at home can protect our properties, but it can also help slow the spread of wildfire through our open spaces, critical watersheds and precious wildlife habitat. Remember: Fire isn’t an IF, it’s a WHEN for Nevada! Stay tuned for updates as we move forward.
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