It was the end of a long, hot summer. Despite the calendar saying it was the last day of September, temperatures were climbing 10 to 15 degrees above normal. Humidity levels were low, and the only measurable precipitation that fell during the past two months came on a single day in mid-September. The landscape was toast, and a storm was on the way.
Still, seasonal firefighters were sent home. The arrival of autumn is, after all, the traditional end of fire season. Even Smoked Bear believed the worst of it was over.
Instead, northeastern Nevada’s biggest fires of the year broke out following a lightning storm. In the days to come, three blazes would scorch more than 200,000 acres, killing livestock and forcing evacuations. It was a rare, late-season event, but one that might be happening more often in the future.
The storm was similar to one that rumbled through the region on Sept. 20, 2008, setting off more than 1,000 lightning strikes north of Interstate 80. It wasn’t nearly as hot or dry that year, and the fires were quickly extinguished.
This year the lightning was worse than forecast, according to the Bureau of Land Management. Three of the blazes were whipped up by strong winds that prevented air attacks — by far the most effective way to fight fires in steep, rugged terrain.
The BLM called in more resources. Ranchers and miners put their equipment to work. State Sen. Dean Rhoads was happy to see federal firefighters — and rainfall — arrive in time to save his house.
By Oct. 5, the steady rains had put a quick end to the job. A day later, Elko received a record snowfall.
It was hopefully the end of a truly odd fire season. Earlier in the year, Elko County Commission Chairman Demar Dahl fought two fires on his ranch. In late July a blaze threatened several homes in Spring Creek. It began not as a wildfire but as a house fire.
Aside from last week’s inferno, it was a mercifully light year for fires. No deaths, and no significant structures lost.
Federal crews did an excellent job keeping this summer’s fires from spreading or doing much damage. Everyone was alert and ready to help out, including a construction bulldozer that cut a fire line in Spring Creek.
That’s the kind of effort and cooperation it takes to control one of the most destructive forces in the West. We are getting good at fighting fires. Now we just need to remember that hot, dry and stormy mean fire danger, regardless of what the calendar says.
Members of the Elko Daily Free Press editorial board are John Pfeifer, Jeffry Mullins and Marianne Kobak McKown.