ELKO – Lamoille Canyon will never be the same.
That was the opinion of some longtime residents after flames ripped through the scenic mountain forest southeast of Elko on Sunday and Monday, causing extensive damage to the region’s most popular recreation area.
Hikers and campers had to drive between walls of flame when the blaze quickly spread into the Ruby Mountains after it started Sunday morning behind the Spring Creek Shooting Range. Residents in parts of Lamoille evacuated as fire retardant was dropped between their homes and the flames. A lodge at the Lions Club summer camp in the heart of the canyon was destroyed.
Massive clouds of smoke billowed out of Lamoille Canyon all day Sunday, along a 12-mile road that leads to a campground and a wilderness area. Thousands of acres of aspen, juniper and mountain mahogany burned along with brush and grass on both sides of the scenic byway.
The road was closed and the U.S. Forest Service issued a mandatory evacuation order.
“The U.S. Forest Service is asking the public to stay out of this area for both their safety and firefighting resources,” stated the agency.
Eight hikers and a sheriff’s deputy were trapped at the top of the canyon Sunday but were “not in danger,” the Forest Service reported.
The Range 2 Fire started before 9 a.m. Sunday on private land behind the Spring Creek shooting range at the base of the mountains.
“Firefighters are seeing 100 foot flames as the fire burns through grass, brush, pinyon and juniper,” the Forest Service stated a few hours later.
Structure protection was in place at homes along the base of the Ruby Mountains. Flames could be seen in other parts of the Ruby Mountains as wind spread the embers.
Air tankers and helicopters battled the blaze through the daylight hours, along with local and state firefighters.
A 64-year old retired research scientist who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area was camped at Thomas Canyon Campground with his wife. They had been hiking and were headed back down from Island Lake at about 3 p.m. when they saw an Elko County Sheriff’s sergeant waving and urgently calling to them.
“He had hiked up to Island Lake solely to evacuate us and secure our safety and for that we are eternally grateful,” said the man, who did not want to be identified.
Law enforcement and Forest Service officials at the Ruby Crest Trailhead parking lot were managing the group of recreationists who were sheltering in place.
“ Initially there were eight of us, but another hiker from the trail heading south joined the shelterees, so there were ultimately nine of us who were escorted out in a caravan after the winds died out and the crews below opened a path down the road,” said the man. “Yesterday my wife and I were rescued by heroes …. We thank them from the bottom of our hearts.
Among the losses was the lodge at Camp Lamoille, a staging area for many summer camp programs, family reunions and special interest group gatherings.
According to Chuck Stout, Lions Club chairman for Camp Lamoille, little remains of the facility that once occupied one of the most pristine settings in northern Nevada.
“As of Sunday night the last report was that the shower and restroom building and a few A-frame cabins are still standing,” Stout said. “The historic lodge is completely gone.”
The campground has seen thousands of visitors since the Boy Scouts of America built Whipple Lodge in 1939. It was listed with the state historical register.
“It was really the heart of the camp,” Stout said.
Stout was on his way to the Lions Club camp Sunday to winterize the facilities when he heard the fire had started. He said the last campers to stay there for the season left by noon Sunday.
The Lions Club owns the camp structures leases the land from the National Forest Service. The buildings were insured but Stout doubts the insurance is enough to cover the damage to the camp.
“No one has been able to get up there for an assessment,” Stout said. “We have already contacted the Forest Service ranger, Josh Nichols. He said he would do everything in his power to help us if we want to rebuild. Now, whether the Forest Service as an entity will allow us to rebuild as an entity, we do not know.”
Walls of flame
The fire found its way into mature forests that have not seen a major blaze in recent memory. A fire at the end of August burned into nearby canyons, and other fires have occurred along the edges of the Ruby range.
Flames burned all night Sunday along both sides of the Lamoille Canyon Road entrance.
Fields on the adjacent Ruby Dome Ranch were spared but the mountainsides on the property burned, according to Susie Sandoz
“Most everything is blackened now,” she said. “It looks like it is coming down now [but] I believe we are safe.”
Firefighting aircraft had dropped a line of fire retardant on the foothills for protection before the fire reached the vicinity of the ranches.
At O’Carroll’s Restaurant in Lamoille, crowds were larger than normal.
Regina Hopkins, a waitress at O’Carroll’s, said the fire has been on everyone’s minds.
“It’s been talked about all morning,” she said. “Everyone is devastated.”
Many of the customers were in the area to go camping but were unable to enter the canyon due to the blaze, Hopkins said.
The business was providing free coffee to those fighting the fire.
“If they send someone down we can send out cold sandwiches. Anything we can do to help with the approval of the owner we will do,” Hopkins said.
The owner, Tarah Duncan, was out of town at the time the fire started but was keeping close contact with her employees. Hopkins said she texted pictures to Duncan and told her yesterday that they might have to evacuate later.
Fortunately, the evacuation was not necessary.
An investigation is underway into the cause of the fire, which a Forest Service spokesperson said started on private land.
Early reports stated it began behind the Spring Creek Association shooting range. The range is adjacent to land owned by the Forest Service, Arrowhead Ranch, Ruby Dome Ranch and Six Bar Ranch.
According to Jessie Bahr, association president and general manager, the area around and within the shooting range has been mowed and sprayed to remove brush and vegetation.
“Inside the range there are no fuels, like cheatgrass … and there is a large fire break with a fence that includes the shooting range,” Bahr said. “Both the shooting range and campground have fire breaks.”
Signs are posted to explain the policies and procedures, prohibiting steel core bullets, tracers and exploding targets.
“Many signs also ask users to always keep muzzles pointed down the range; not to cross-range shoot, not to shoot at walls, or anything other than the berms and targets,” Bahr said.
However, she said all of the signs and cautions have not protected facilities at the range, as the trash cans and restrooms are riddled with bullet holes and there are clay remnants and shotgun shells visible on the grounds.
“There are those who are irresponsible with their weapons,” Bahr said.
The forecast called for a chance of rain Tuesday, mainly along the eastern side of the range.
Even if the blaze is extinguished soon, the damage and impact on local residents will be felt for many years.
“To me this is absolutely devastating,” said Elko County Commissioner and Lions Club member Delmo Andreozzi. “I’m heartsick. Elko County has really suffered from this fire season.”
Andreozzi was raised in Elko and has fond memories of countless hours spent in the Ruby Mountains.
“I enjoy everything the Ruby Mountains has to offer,” Andreozzi said. “I am emotionally attached to these mountains. I don’t know if my kids or I will ever see this come back in our lifetime. I think everyone is in a state of shock. I hope we find how this started and can hold the people accountable.”
As smoke billowed from the mountainsides on Monday, the fate of the Lions Club campground that for years lay at the foot of a giant cirque basin was unknown.
Stout said programs such as Camp Dat-So-La-Lee, an outdoor experience for underprivileged Nevada children, would definitely suffer. He was not sure whether next year’s camp would be canceled or relocated.
“I have been going out there for years. It was just a special place,” Stout said. “In my opinion, the canyon will never be the same.”
Winds were gusting up to 20 mph, according to the National Weather Service.
A Type III Management Team will take over the fire at 6 a.m. Monday. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
The latest fire started just east of one that burned more than 1,000 acres at the end of August. The cause of that fire has not been determined.
Elsewhere in the region, a flash flood watch was issued for southeastern Elko County on Tuesday and Wednesday as remnant moisture from Hurricane Rosa pushes in from the Pacific.
“Widespread rainfall of one half inch to three quarters of an inch with localized amounts around two inches in the higher terrain is possible,” stated the weather service.