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.