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2018 wildfire season: What made it different in northeast Nevada

ELKO — Nevada witnessed the largest wildfire in state history, extreme fire behavior and an increase in human-caused blazes during the 2018 fire season.

More than 660,240 acres of private, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land burned in 138 fires starting in June, when fire season kicked off a month and half earlier than normal. Last year, more than 540,000 acres burned in a total of 164 fires. Both years are comparable to the extreme fire year in 2006, according to the BLM.

Yet this season goes down in infamy for fire size, location, behavior and cause.

The Martin Fire started around July 4 and ultimately burned more than 439,000 acres — an area about five times the size of Las Vegas. It was not only the largest fire in Nevada history but also one of the biggest in the U.S.

Nevada also saw fires climb to high elevations, such as the 233,462-acre Sugarloaf Fire north of Wildhorse and the more than 9,000-acre Range 2 Fire in Lamoille Canyon. Flames reached stands of pinon and mountain mahogany, and lit up large, felled trees considered “thousand-hour fuels.”

Those high elevations have not burned for 100 years, explained Greg Deimel, public affairs officer for the BLM Elko district, during the Elko County Board of Commissioners meeting Dec. 5.

This year, fires did not calm down at night like the usually do, giving firefighters a chance to make headway, Instead, fires burned through the night and would only lie down for about 45 minutes right before sunrise. Fires burned through fire retardant earlier in the year than usual, and crews performed more structure protection than any other time in recent memory.

A 24-hour workforce worked 36-hour shifts with “no down time,” said Matt Murphy, interagency fire management officer. “[There was] no time for those folks to take a rest, and it wore hard on all those resources.”

The district brought in 60 additional resources, 10 more than last year, to aid normal resources and staffing. Normal interagency staffing includes 14 engines, one each dozer, water tender, helicopter and air attack.

Some fires were of such high complexity that special incident management teams were requested. A Type 3 fire is rare for Elko, Murphy said, but “we hosted three of those this year.”

A dry summer marked by three months of virtually no precipitation left the land vulnerable to fires starting from dry lightning. Lightning caused 43 percent of fires this year.

Humans caused the other 57 percent of fires, according to the BLM, in a reversal from last year. Last year, only 33 percent of fires were human-caused, such as by equipment use, illegal fires, incendiary devices and more.

“That’s a real anomaly this year,” Murphy said.

Northeastern Nevada entered the fire season after a relatively dry winter, meaning that fuels such as grasses from 2017 still stood tall because snow didn’t mash them down, the BLM reported. Some areas of the state had fuel loads that measured 200-300 percent more than average based on pounds per acre.

“We had ripe conditions for a fire season this year,” Murphy said.

The costs of firefighting totaled $3 million for preparedness, $900,000 for severity and $12 million for suppression.

“We’ve got way too much money into fighting fire,” Elko County Commission Demar Dahl said, recommending more focus go into reducing fuel loads through livestock grazing.

“I don’t think it’s that simplistic,” responded Jill Silvey, BLM Elko district manager.

She acknowledged that tools such as outcome-based grazing could help reduce fuel loads but pointed to changing ecological conditions and a complex fire regime that needs additional study and solutions.

Predictions for the 2019 fire season are vague, with some saying drought is coming, and with it a reduction in fuels; others say there is a chance for summer monsoonal moisture. Some fuel growth is expected to carry over into next year.

Meanwhile, agencies are cooperating to stabilize and rehabilitate burn areas. Stabilization aims to prevent negative impacts such as erosion and begins within a year after the fire. Reseeding has begun on several of the burn areas, with a focus on the Martin Fire area. Rehabilitation can last up to five years, with the goal of returning a burned site to normal conditions.

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16th annual Snowflake Festival

Elko – In celebration of winter, the Snowflake Festival and Parade of Lights return Saturday for the public’s enjoyment.

“Jingle all the Way” is this year’s theme.

“We are going to have a cookie crawl,” Downtown Business Association Vice President Brianne Clark said. “It’s kind of like a wine walk but with cookies.”

People can pick up a cookie tin at noon at Evergreen Floral located at 638 Commercial St. Eleven corridor businesses must be visited to fill the tin.

“This is limited to the first 60 people,” Clark said.

From noon to 4 p.m. vendors will be set up selling a variety of wares. The Western Folklife Center is hosting Santa’s Workshop, an event where children can make crafts with Santa and have photos taken. The DBA is also bringing in reindeer.

“We will have local performers on stage by the tower,” Clark said.

At 5 p.m. the Parade of Lights will brighten the evening with a variety of floats and other entries decorated with Christmas lights.

Jeff Mullins / ELKO DAILY file 

Two years ago the theme for the Parade of Lights was "Charlie Brown's Christmas." This year it is "Jingle all the Way."

AP, Sue Ogrocki 

Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray (1) throws on Sept. 22 against Army, in Norman, Okla. On Thursday, Murray was named The Associated Press college football Player of the Year.

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25th Shop with a Cop this weekend at Walmart

ELKO — The 25th anniversary Shop with a Cop program on Dec. 8 will be in a new location, now that the longtime host Kmart has closed.

The program helps children who may not otherwise have a Christmas this year, according to Nevada Highway Patrol trooper Jim Stewart.

“Emergency responders will take 100 less fortunate children from the Elko, Battle Mountain and Eureka areas shopping at Walmart to spend $200 each for Christmas,” Stewart said. “We also give each family of the selected child a $100 food gift card at a local grocery store so they can have a Christmas meal.”

Emergency responders will meet with their child (ages 5-12) at Flagview Intermediate School at 8 a.m., take a picture with Santa, have breakfast with the responders, then convoy to Walmart in parade fashion with lights and siren.

“To celebrate our 25th year anniversary, Santa will be in a helicopter (weather permitting) leading the parade,” Stewart said.

The event is expected to draw more than 300 children, responders and volunteers to Walmart from 9 a.m. to noon.

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US to ease oil drilling controls protecting sage grouse

BILLINGS, Mont. — The Trump administration moved forward Thursday with plans to ease restrictions on oil and natural gas drilling and other activities across millions of acres in the American West that were put in place to protect an imperiled bird species.

Land management documents released by the U.S. Interior Department show the administration intends to open more public lands to leasing and allow waivers for drilling to encroach into the habitat of greater sage grouse.

Critics warned the changes could wipe out grouse colonies as drilling disrupts breeding grounds. Federal officials under President Barack Obama in 2015 had adopted a sweeping set of land use restrictions intended to benefit the birds.

Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt said the agency was responding to requests by states to give them more flexibility in how public lands are managed. He said the goal to conserve sage grouse was unchanged.

“I completely believe that these plans are leaning forward on the conservation of sage grouse,” Bernhardt told The Associated Press. “Do they do it in exactly the same way, no? We made some change in the plans and got rid of some things that are simply not necessary.”

The changes drew a sharp backlash from conservation groups and wildlife advocates, who warned excessive use of drilling waivers could push sage grouse onto the list of threatened and endangered species.

“If you allow exception after exception, that might make sense for a particular project in a particular spot, but you add them all together and you have death by a thousand cuts,” said National Wildlife Association vice president Tracy Stone-Manning.

The ground-dwelling grouse ranges across about 270,000 square miles in parts of 11 Western U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Its numbers have plummeted in recent decades.

Under President Donald Trump, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has vowed to lift obstacles to drilling, and grouse protections have long been viewed by the energy industry as an obstacle to development.

Sage grouse are large, ground-dwelling birds known for an elaborate mating ritual in which males strut around breeding grounds with large, puffed-out air sacs protruding from their chests.

They once numbered in the millions. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now estimates the population at 200,000 to 500,000. Energy development, disease and other causes have decimated populations in some areas.

The Trump administration’s proposal would reverse or modify the Obama-era protections in seven states — Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, California, Idaho and Oregon.

The oil and gas industry chafed at the old rules. Once Trump took office, industry representatives pushed the administration to give more recognition to changes in drilling practices that reduce how much land is disturbed for wells.

“We can do both — protect sage grouse and move forward with responsible energy development,” said Kathleen Sgamma with the Western Energy Alliance, which represents more than 300 oil and gas companies. “We’ve reduced the size of well pads, reduced the numbers of wells. And we had done all these things and the prior administration assumed development was taking place like it was 20 years ago.

Governors from several western states previously raised concerns over a related federal directive from the Bureau of Land Management that would limit a type of land swap that can be used to preserve habitat for the birds.

Without land swaps and related forms of compensation meant to offset habitat damage, the governors said it would be harder to help the sage grouse survive.

In response, the Interior Department on Thursday revised the directive to say federal officials would consider state-mandated or voluntary proposals for land swaps or similar offsets, but would not accept cash payments.

“Where there’s a state requirement, we require in our permits that they comply with state requirements,” Bernhardt said.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, said Thursday’s announcement showed federal officials heeded the states’ concerns.

“This is a great example of federal leaders listening to state leaders, valuing their expertise, and changing their plans based on that input,” Herbert said in a statement.

Following Thursday’s release of environmental studies analyzing the changes in each state, governors and the public get another chance to weigh in before a final decision is expected in early 2019.