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2017 wildfire season: How bad was it?

ELKO – The 2017 fire season ranked as extreme in the Elko County area, with statistics that suggest another fiery summer next year. The Elko District Bureau of Land Management representatives gave a wildfire report for the most recent wildfire season to the Elko County Commissioners on Dec. 6

A drier-than-expected spring, the early onset of summer, frequent occurrence of dry lightning and high amounts of flammable material on the ground contributed to a total of 164 fires that burned about 540,000 acres in Elko County and parts of Lander and Eureka counties over the 2017 fire season.

Monsoonal moisture did not last as long as expected, and arid summer conditions left the region vulnerable to dry lightning. Consequently, fires started as early as mid-June, whereas fire season usually begins in July.

The season also saw extra growth of fuels, such as cheatgrass, to 300 percent and upwards of 400 percent in some areas, based on a 10-year average. A slower fire season in 2016 also left more material on the ground.

“In the spring of 2016 we had a lot of fuel residual on the ground that increased the fuel-loading potential for fires,” said Matt Murphy, fuels manager for the Elko District BLM.

Greg Deimel, public information officer for the Elko District BLM, explained how ranchers and residents can help mitigate risk.

“We work with our rancher liaisons every spring to use their expertise to help fight fires on land, and sometimes even use their equipment,” Deimel said. “We hope to continue to emphasize fire prevention in our community from people starting to trim the trees near their houses and even bringing plants away from their homes to prevent fires.”

The BLM is considering two methods to help control fuels. Outcome-based grazing and dormant grazing would allow livestock operators more flexibility in allowing animals to graze plants that dry up and become fuel for wildfires.

The causes of 2017 fires broke down to a total of 67 percent natural and 33 percent human. Human-caused fires were divided into the following categories: 28 percent of all fire causes were undetermined, 22 percent from equipment use, 12 percent both for careless and debris burns, 10 percent by power lines, 8 percent by vehicles, 6 percent by debris burns, and 2 percent by buildings.

The agency spent $3 million on preparedness and $8.8 million for fire suppression in the Elko district.

Cleanup and rehabilitation of burned lands must be completed about a year after the fires. This includes stabilizing the area of the fire to prevent negative environmental effects. Rehabilitating native plants and controlling weeds can take place up to five years after the incident.

“We saw this season a reburn of wheat grass, which is something we’d never seen before,” said Murphy. “The wind would shift the fire, and it would come back again to burn. It was a major safety concern, and injured a couple of our firefighters this season.”

There has not been a wildfire season comparable to this since 2006, when almost $1 million acres burned. In 2007, the district saw another severe fire year. Because of similarities in conditions to the 2006 and 2007 fire seasons, the BLM predicts that the 2018 season will also be extreme.

Trainers rush to save horses as flames close in

BONSALL, Calif. (AP) — A routine day at an elite training center for racehorses transformed into terror and chaos in minutes, with hundreds of thoroughbreds stampeding out of their stalls in a desperate attempt to flee a Southern California wildfire that set their barns ablaze.

Turned loose by their trainers in a last-ditch effort to save their lives, the huge, muscular animals, their eyes wide with fear, charged through thick smoke and past dancing flames.

While hundreds made it to the safety of a nearby racetrack, others galloped in circles, unsure which way to run. Still others, too frightened to leave their paddocks, stayed there and died.

Workers at San Luis Rey Downs said an estimated 30 to 40 horses perished Thursday in the wildfire still raging out of control north of San Diego on Friday. At least two stable workers were injured, and their conditions were not immediately known.

Trainers described a terrifying scene that erupted at the facility Thursday afternoon, recalling how only minutes after smelling smoke, they saw flames roaring down a nearby hillside.

“I was heading to my barn to drop my equipment off and I smell smoke,” trainer Kim Marrs said Friday as she stood outside the still-smoldering facility. “Within two minutes, I look up the hill and you could just see it come up over the ridge.”

She and others tried to turn back the flames with hoses and fire extinguishers before firefighters arrived. But when embers from burning palm trees began igniting the roofs of barns, they realized they had no other alternative than to turn loose the approximately 450 horses stabled there.

“The next thing, there’s a stampede of 100 horses coming through here,” said Marrs, who was trying to lead one of the horses she trains, a 5-year-old named Spirit World, through a tunnel. “We almost got trampled to death.”

At one of the center’s many barns, video showed a group of trainers frantically tearing down a wooden fence and shouting at their horses to run.

One large black horse, its forelocks wrapped in white leggings, bolted toward safety but then spooked by the burning palm trees, turned and fled back toward its stable. Scores of others charged through thick smoke to safety.

Trainer Cliff Sise suffered burns on his chest and arm trying to get a 2-year-old filly named Scat Home Lady out of her stable. She wouldn’t budge, and he said she burned to death there.

“She was one of my favorites,” Sise said as he sat outside the facility.

Trainer Jerry Contreras said one of his best friends, a fellow trainer, was hospitalized.

“He was trying to get his horses out and was burned,” Contreras said.

At San Luis Rey Downs, the phone rang unanswered and the owners quickly barred outsiders from the sprawling facility.

It is Southern California’s premier training center for thoroughbreds, with a competition-sized racetrack, a smaller one for training, numerous trails for horses to relax on and even a swimming pool for them to work out in.

The fire also destroyed dozens of mobile homes in a retirement community in the small city of Fallbrook, known for its avocado orchards and horse ranches. Three people were burned trying to escape the flames, said Capt. Nick Schuler of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The destructive blaze broke out as firefighters tried to corral the largest fire in the state that was burning around Ventura — 130 miles to the north — and destroyed 430 buildings as it grew to 180 square miles since Monday. Fire crews also fought large fires around Los Angeles, though they made enough progress to lift most evacuation orders.

More than 100 minimum security inmates at prison camps in Nevada were being deployed to Ventura to help fight the fires.

Nevada Department of Corrections Director James Dzurenda said the camp officers and inmate firefighters are trained and prepared to do the job.

Dzurenda said Thursday they were en route from prison camps in Carson City, Pioche, Ely, Jean and the Three Lakes Valley Camp about 30 miles north of Las Vegas.

He says only those inmates who pose the least security risk are allowed to work on the crews.

Voting machines to change

ELKO — Voters will register their selections for elections on different machines next year after the Elko County Commissioners approved contracts for new voting machines and voter registration software Dec. 6, in accordance to state direction.

“This is mandated by the state,” Commissioner Cliff Eklund said.

The Legislature appropriated funds for all Nevada counties to purchase voting machines and related equipment through Assembly Bill 519. Elko County’s state reimbursement totals $183,905 plus a $32,697 equipment credit, leaving $253,767 to be paid with county net proceed and capital fund money.

The commissioners approved contracts with VOTEC Corp. for software and services and Dominion Voting Systems Inc. for equipment.

One hundred large tablet computers capable of receiving software updates will replace the county’s 13-year-old electronic voting machines, and additional equipment will replace the handwritten sign-in logs. The equipment will not be connected to internet or any network, and votes are tabulated locally before being sent to the Secretary of State in a secure document. For backup and verification, related equipment prints receipt-like forms that the county keeps in its records.

“Technology is growing,” said Elko County Elections Clerk Becky Plunkett. “We just have to grow with it.”

Residents who do not want to use the electronic system can still opt to use the absentee ballot, as does Thomas Burney, who aired his concerns during the commissioners’ meeting.

“I resent the fact that the state can mandate, or the federal government can mandate, an electronic recording system that inarguably they cannot guarantee the security of,” Burney said. “I don’t get this on a moral and ethical level.”

The tablets are expected to save space and time, and improve the voter experience. A touchscreen will allow a voter to tap their elections, and options such as large font size are designed to improve usability.

“I think it will be easier all around,” Plunkett said.