Northeastern Nevada has seen one of its worst fire seasons in recent years as blaze after blaze posed threats to people and property. It’s been a tough season, and we are hoping this week’s cooler weather helps bring 2017’s fires to an end.
What amazes us the most about this season is the outstanding performance by firefighting crews. Working from the ground and air, they managed to save homes as well as lives while bravely risking their own.
The wildfires of 2017 started much earlier than normal, even before the official start of summer in June. Blazes destroyed structures in the Elko area and beyond, closed major routes such as Interstate 80 and Lamoille Highway for hours, decimated wildlife habitat, and impacted mining operations.
Among the spectacular blazes in the Elko area was the Oil Well Fire that swept through Kittridge Canyon and across I-80 in mid-July. More recently, the fire on Elko summit in early September left the city’s big white “E” surrounded by scorched black earth.
Although fall officially arrives at the end of this week, the fire season may not be over. The latest lightning-sparked blaze in the region burned more than 13,000 acres just last week in the Cortez Mountains, not far from Crescent Valley and Cortez Gold Mine. It was fully contained on Saturday.
In past years it has been common for fire seasons to peak in mid-August, but in 2017 more than 120 fires had already burned half a million acres by that time — and the flames kept coming.
Even more severe fire seasons were reported in some other parts of the West. The U.S. Forest reported last week that fire suppression costs had topped $2 billion, making it the most expensive year on record.
“Forest Service spending on fire suppression in recent years has gone from 15 percent of the budget to 55 percent – or maybe even more …” said Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
Combined with the fact that more than 100 million dead trees have been identified in the southern Sierra alone, the West’s wildfire outlook appears to be in a dangerous tailspin.
Here in northeastern Nevada there are few trees to burn. Instead, wildfire damage is mostly measured in terms of wildlife habitat. By mid-August more than 500 square miles of crucial winter range for antelope and mule deer herds in Elko County had burned, according to state wildlife officials.
“Last summer’s fires had already decimated a large portion of this winter range, and the additional habitat loss from the 2017 fires have taken a bad situation and made it much worse,” said Tony Wasley, director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
Fires north of Battle Mountain and Midas ravaged the range used by mule deer and antelope. Emergency hunts were ordered in the wake of the habitat loss.
The devastation left by this summer’s fires has officials wondering how to cope. Perdue complained that his agency is unable spend money on fire prevention measures such as prescribed burning, harvesting, or insect control because the dollars will likely be needed for suppression.
About all that can be done at this point is to educate the public on preventing human-caused fires, which officials say are responsible for eight out of 10 blazes. One of the most destructive fires in Utah this summer was caused by a man burning weeds on his property.
Federal agencies are advising hunters to be especially careful as they head out into the wild this fall.
Besides commonsense suggestions such as carefully putting out campfires and keeping hot vehicle exhaust away from combustible grasses and weeds, the BLM recommends hunters follow precautions with their firearms:
“Gun maintenance, proper sighting and other shooting safety techniques are critical to preventing wildfires. Proper gun maintenance can improve accuracy of shots and prevent missing your intended target and shooting rocks or grass, unintentionally creating sparks. Avoid shooting into areas with rocks and cured grasses, especially during the peak heat of the day …”
The devastating fire season of 2017 may continue into fall, so let’s all do our part to keep the damage at a minimum.