Courtesy of East Fork Fire Protection District

             Courtesy of East Fork Fire Protection District

A fun part of living in the wildland-urban interface is the range of pastimes that an outdoor enthusiast can find to occupy his or her free time. I love running my dogs in the hills and hiking with friends by the stream near my community. My dad, who is a target shooting enthusiast, suggested hiking out a ways and target shooting sometime soon. His only caution was that we’d need to be sure that fire weather watch or red flag warning conditions weren’t in effect for the day. We’d never want to cause a wildfire.

I was stunned. Target shooting? Cause a wildfire? He had to be kidding, right? Of course I nodded and agreed to save my reputation as a know-it-all with Dad, but after our discussion, I searched the internet for evidence. To say I found a lot on the subject is an understatement. I found a study the Forest Service published last year that spelled out some nerve-wracking details. The agency performed experiments to determine whether or not rifle bullets would ignite organic matter in the right circumstances and were met with a clear answer: yes. Here are some key points from what they found:

  • “Rifle bullets striking hard surfaces can lead to ignition of organic material.”
  • “Ignitions were regularly observed for bullets with steel components and solid copper components.”
  • “Bullet fragments achieved temperatures of 1,200-1,400 °F.”

Read the study here.   

Okay, hot bullet fragments can start wildfires. What do I do if I hear target shooting in the hills behind my house on a day when the conditions are just right for wildfire? I called Terry Taylor, fire captain and investigator with East Fork Fire Protection District for some answers.

Captain Taylor, who’s passionate about keeping the public informed about the risks of target shooting concerning wildfire, was happy to discuss the subject. Between 2012 and 2013, he surveyed a portion of western Nevada and found that target shooting caused 37 wildfires. The majority of these fires occurred on unoccupied private or public lands that were within a few miles of residential areas.

Is target shooting bound to start a wildfire? Not necessarily. Captain Taylor said that the conditions need to be right. Target shooting can cause wildfires in critical fire weather or red flag warning conditions especially when practiced near easily ignitable vegetation like dry cheatgrass. Also, all bullets are not made equal when it comes to target shooting and avoiding wildfire. Steel ammunition is the worst culprit, and many people who shoot with it don’t realize what it’s made out of because it’s covered with copper coating.

Captain Taylor suggests that homeowners call local law enforcement and explain their concerns if they hear target shooting during critical fire weather watch or red flag warning conditions. Law enforcement can make sure that the target shooters aren’t shooting unsafely and will also ensure that they’re following city and county ordinances.

Well this know-it-all learned something new! It’s good to know I can call local law enforcement if I’m concerned that a nearby target shooter might cause a wildfire. I’m also glad to have more information to help keep my community safe from the threat of wildfire.

Courtesy of the Nevada Division of Forestry

        Courtesy of the Nevada Division of Forestry

 Natalie Newcomer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last week a brush fire burned near one of my favorite campgrounds. Fire crews were able to quickly contain the blaze and campers were only evacuated for a short time. I thought getting rained out of my July camping trip was a bummer… yikes! What stuck with me was how close another wildfire had been to my home. After all, the reason why those particular campgrounds are some of my favorites is because they’re just a quick trip from my driveway.

When I shared my concerns with my neighbor, she told me how reassured she was that she’d signed up for our county’s emergency notification system. In the event of an emergency in our area, she’ll receive a message that will let her know what’s going on.

I have to admit, I assumed I would be notified automatically.  Now I know that this is not the case, especially since I don’t have a land line.  Thanks to my recent discussion with an emergency services dispatcher, I know what goes on behind the scenes when someone calls 911 to report a fire. (Read that blog article here.)  It makes sense that emergency services would need to know how to get ahold of me to tell me if a fire or other type of emergency threatened my home and family.

A quick google search brought up Washoe County’s emergency management homepage and directed me to sign up for the Code Red system. It was very simple for me to enter my address, cell phone number and email address for emergency notification purposes. I can receive the messages via call and text, and was able to set up a password for my account to adjust my information if it changes in the future.

In their publication, Fire Adapted Communities: The Next Step in Wildfire Preparedness, Living With Fire addresses emergency notification systems. Apparently several Nevada counties use different emergency notification systems that can contact community members similarly to how the Code Red system will contact me. The publication encourages homeowners to enter multiple forms of contact information if the database will allow. If a landline is the only number the database will call, a homeowner may not receive the notification if the power is down or if they’re not home. Check with your county’s emergency management department, local fire department or sheriff’s office to see if there is an emergency notification system being used in your county, and to find out how you can sign up.

I feel so relieved after signing up. I understand that no system is perfect, but I’m glad I have another way to keep apprised of emergencies in my area.

Natalie Newcomer

With fire season in full swing and more acres of Nevada vegetation burning by the day, I recently began to wonder what happens when a 911 call is placed to report smoke or flames. If Hollywood gives any indication, the call is placed and a fire engine lights up immediately, with firefighters rushing into it to go fight the blaze. Well, Hollywood exaggerates on most everything else, so my curiosity, as usual, won out. I spoke with an on-duty supervisor at my local dispatch agency to understand what goes on when someone calls 911 for smoke or flames.

Erin has worked at my local dispatch agency for a while, and in the short time I spoke with her, I could tell she was a woman who was adept at gathering details quickly and who didn’t miss a beat.

She explained that there are three general steps to her side of the call:

  1. The first thing she’ll ask for is an address. If the caller is calling from a land line, then her technology will gather that information automatically, but most people are calling from cell phones these days. If the caller is calling from a cell phone, they’ll need to give her an address or the nearest cross streets.
  2. She’ll then find out what help is needed. If the emergency is a fire, she’ll ask which type. This part is crucial as the answer will determine what kind of help Erin will order. If it’s a wildland fire, she’ll ask for brush trucks; if it’s a house or building fire she’ll request structure vehicles. The right type of help needs to be ordered right off the bat, as having the wrong type of help arrive to the emergency would waste precious time and could be ineffective to fight the blaze.
  3. After she has this information, she’ll set to work entering it into her computer. The National Fire Protection Association says that a dispatcher has to enter the information in the computer within 30 seconds of the call being placed. The fire dispatcher on duty has another 30 seconds to take that information and send it to the fire department.

Erin assured me that dispatchers can usually make this time frame; occasionally a nervous caller who doesn’t have the information ready will cause that time to increase. Dispatchers understand that callers can feel nervous or anxious but their cooperation is paramount. As such, dispatchers are trained to help a caller by asking their questions quickly and directly.

Aside from having their location or the location of where they see smoke coming from ready when they call, callers should let their dispatcher know if there are any potentially hazardous materials inside a structure that’s near or is on fire. They should also be prepared to describe the size of the fire, and if it’s a wildfire, tell how far it is from neighboring structures. Dispatchers will also take down the description of an arsonist right away and a caller should be prepared to give that information.  

After my conversation with Erin, I feel like I know what goes on behind the scenes when someone reports a fire. My biggest takeaway? Location. I’ll make sure to have an address ready if I ever need to report a fire. The Living With Fire Program actually talks about the importance of having your address visible for help when it arrives, and recommends that lettering be four inches high. Read about it in their Fire Adapted Communities publication.

 

Until next time, 

Natalie Newcomer

Last July’s Carpenter 1 Fire made national headlines and filled the skies of Las Vegas with smoke. A recent YouTube search turned up a video, posted by the U.S. Forest Service, about the role fuels reduction projects played in saving many homes in the Mt. Charleston area from wildfire.

You might be wondering “What is a fuels reduction project?” Don’t worry, so was I. In the video, a Nevada Division of Forestry representative explains that a fuels reduction project is meant to thin vegetation, to reduce space between trees, shrubs and understory plants to reduce speed, flame lengths, and fire intensity when a fire burns up to the area. The video also shows a map of a strip of fuels reduction, also known as a fuel break, and explains that it, along with the firefighters, are responsible for saving the homes in Trout Canyon. Watch it here.

As fuel breaks seem to be effective in saving a community from an oncoming wildfire, how do I know if my community needs one? Time for some sleuthing.

As a Nevada Division of Forestry Fire Protection Officer, Paul Carmichael performs home assessments and provides fuel reduction recommendations for homeowners. He uses Living With Fire material and his experience with fire and fuels to make recommendations to reduce a home or community’s wildfire threat.

To get started Paul suggested talking to neighbors to get buy in for the project and giving your local fire department a call to see where to go next. An important step to include in the process is a maintenance plan.  Vegetation grows back, and all that hard-won space can become very flammable again over time.

I’d imagine that establishing a fuel break would not only be labor intensive, but expensive as well. Paul had a suggestion for me there too. Local fire departments, county representatives, or sometimes even established homeowners associations can apply for grant funding to get the work done. One he suggested in particular was the Nevada Division of Forestry’s State Fire Assistance Grant. Read up on the program here.

I think many of my neighbors would agree that a fuel break around our community would bring us all a little more peace of mind. The process seems like a bit of an endeavor, but I like the idea of working together with my neighbors and local fire department to get started. Ultimately our community will be closer, and much safer, for it.

Let’s get to work!

Natalie Newcomer

 

The 4th of July and a local fireworks show has always been a fixture of my upbringing in Nevada. My family would always pack cold drinks and desserts in a cooler and find a cozy patch of grass or a great spot to set up camping chairs in a parking lot to watch one of the area’s professional firework shows. As a new homeowner living at the base of a mountain range dotted with burn scars, I’m still looking forward to my favorite professional fireworks display, but am also concerned about the potential fire hazard illegal fireworks could cause my community.

A local news story recently confirmed my concern. Their message: leave firework shows in the hands of professionals. The interview showed footage of a partially-burned house where a bottle rocket landed in a nearby juniper bush and ignited the structure. What happened to this home isn’t an isolated incident. According to the City of Sparks Fire Marshal, Bob King, 4th of July fireworks cause more fires in the United States than all other fire causes combined in a typical year. The interview cautions that anyone caught with fireworks in Washoe County can be charged with a misdemeanor, receive jail time and can be fined. If a fire is started by fireworks, they could have to pay for fire suppression costs and for damages caused by the fire. The City of Sparks Fire Department will accept fireworks voluntarily handed in with a “no questions asked” kind of policy. Watch the interview here.

Aside from creating a fire hazard, many people who are lighting fireworks or are nearby as they’re shot off have been gravely injured. I was surprised to learn that a sparkler can generate enough heat to really hurt someone. A fact sheet from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) shows that the average level of heat a sparkler puts off when lit is 1200 degrees Fahrenheit at its tip; that’s hot enough to melt glass, burn wood, bake a cake, boil water and cause third-degree burns. NFPA makes a similar caution to King’s: if people want to see fireworks, they should attend a show put on by experts.

I was happy to discover that there is something I can do if I see or hear illegal fireworks nearby… call 911! The City of Reno provided this information along with some safety tips on grilling and campfires.  Read it here. It’s a good idea to check with your local fire marshal for the regulations in your area.

I can’t wait to celebrate the fourth with my loved ones while enjoying the sights and sounds of the local professional fireworks show. I’m also grateful to my local fire services and other community members who want to keep the holiday a safe one, and keep any fires from ruining the Independence Day fun.

Happy 4th of July!

Natalie Newcomer

 

Late spring is a precarious time for weather in Nevada. Temperatures can drop and soar, the sun can be shining one moment and rain can be pounding the roof of a car the next. So I wasn’t surprised when this week’s weather forecast called for highs that meant shorts and sandals. With summer just around the corner, Nevadans are getting ready to enjoy trips to the lake, frozen treats, nighttime temperatures that are perfect for stargazing and red flag warnings.

I know, you’re thinking I must have lost a couple of marbles along the way, but red flag warnings are part of the package for living in Nevada. As a new homeowner living in the WUI, I want to know what a red flag warning means for my neighborhood and my home.

A YouTube search turned up a video by the National Weather Service, Reno office. This video discusses how forecasters decide if the weather conditions warrant a red flag warning. Local fire agencies determine when the vegetation is dry enough to carry fire. The fire agencies then notify the National Weather Service to begin issuing Red Flag Warnings when the critical fire weather conditions occur. Using weather, topography and fuels – all that great smelling brush around my yard that gives me allergies this time of year – the National Weather Service Team determines if the conditions are right for extreme fire behavior or numerous fire starts. These are the kinds of conditions in which a wildfire could explode out of control before first responders could arrive. The video also discusses what conditions are right for a red flag warning in two scenarios: the first would occur when relative humidity would be lower than 15% and wind gusts would be at least 30 miles per hour; the second would occur during a forecast of dry lightning and winds from thunderstorms. Watch it here and check out the National Weather Service’s fire weather map for the current conditions for your area.

Like your local National Weather Service office’s Facebook page and you’ll be in the know about red flag alerts. The National Weather Service, Reno office shows a graphic for Tuesday’s red flag warning, with a reminder of the kinds of things people need to avoid to be sure they don’t start a fire:

  • Don’t use fireworks or start a campfire.
  • Stow trailer chains properly.
  • Don’t drive over dry grass.
  • Postpone target shooting.
  • Avoid yard work or welding near dry vegetation.

Noted. I’ll avoid these activities and will be sure to encourage my neighbors and friends to do the same on red flag warning days. Looking at the sagebrush around my community, knowing that today’s conditions will continue to repeat throughout the year, I feel encouraged to evaluate my home as well. My yard is clear of weeds and debris but according to the Living With Fire website, I can do more. There are plenty of activities I can do around my home, so that it will have a better chance of surviving if a wildfire starts in the hills next to my house. I’ll add them to my list of summer projects for sure!

Stay safe and enjoy that late-spring weather,

Natalie Newcomer

As a member of a community located in the wildland-urban interface where a beautiful hike is moments from my door, there’s always wildlife to study, and the stars seem to burn a little brighter at night, I take pride in my community. I also take comfort in the multiple fire stations close by, for as beautiful and enjoyable as the hills around my house are, they could quite easily burn, and if the old charred sagebrush carcasses I’ve seen on my hikes are any indication, they have before.

I appreciate my community fire service men and women. I think they’re heroic and brave, and cannot begin to count the number of neighbor kids I used to babysit who wanted to be firefighters when they grew up. So with the faith society puts on our fire services, it’s absolutely reasonable for me to expect a fire engine in my driveway, protecting my house from a wildfire, right? Well, maybe not.

A recent internet search turned up a production by The Denver Post called “The Fire Line: Wildfire in Colorado.” The video features compelling stories of the people who lost their homes to Colorado wildfires and the firefighters who were tasked with defending them. The message is well delivered and simple: in a society where more and more homes are built in the wildland, it’s unfair to expect firefighters to put themselves in certain danger to defend them, when the homeowner has not taken any steps to reduce their fire threat. I highly recommend it. Watch it here, and keep a tissue handy!

It appears as though Nevada’s got a similar idea. The Living With Fire homepage features the poster for the Nevada Wildfire Awareness Month campaign. The message: Prepare Your Home For Wildfire. See the poster and a list of events people around the state are participating in, at http://www.livingwithfire.info/wildfire-awareness-month.

Living With Fire’s message behind the poster is also simple: “This year we hope to change the traditional reactionary thinking of protecting our homes from wildfire to a proactive approach – prepare your home for wildfire!”

I think I’ll take this call to action to task. By preparing my home for the wildfire I know is bound to strike the hills by my house again, then I’ll have done my community fire services a favor. It’ll be easier to defend a house that’s ready, or if the area’s not safe for them to be in, I’ll know my house still has a chance of surviving without a fire engine in my driveway. Now that’s something to take comfort in.

To learn how to make your home safer from a wildfire, and a place that fire services can better defend, visit livingwithfire.info.

Cheers!

Natalie Newcomer

 

 

One of my favorite things about living in the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) is that I can walk out my front door and start hiking within moments of leaving my house.

I love to study pinyon pine trees on my hikes. They have needles and drop pine cones like a pine tree should, but they make the most interesting shapes. Instead of the conical, straight-up-and-down shape you’d expect from an iconic pine tree, their branches twist and extend out wide at all angles, almost like an oak tree. They’re so much fun to look at because they’re all so individual!

Imagine my delight when I found a publication called “Pinyon Pine Management Guidelines For Common Pests” on the Living With Fire website. The booklet is short – an easy Sunday afternoon read – and tells all about how to manage pinyon pine on your property as well as their general forest management guidelines. When properly cared for, they can survive disease and resist beetle attack. Wait… what?

Beetle attack. The paper devotes a large section to common pests that would infect pinyon pine. At the top of the list is the Pinyon Ips beetle. These nasty little buggers, dark brown or black bugs that are approximately 1/4 inch long, attack the tree and leave it in terrible shape after they’re done. The process goes like this: a male bores into the bark of the tree and releases a pheromone to call other male and female beetles; they mate and the females engrave canals to lay eggs; the eggs hatch and little white larvae eat the inner bark; finally, once they all grow up, they fly on to other trees and the process starts over. Is your skin crawling yet? Mine is.

Pinyon Ips beetles target drought-stressed trees or trees that have fresh wounds for entry; because of this, the booklet suggests that pinyon pines should only be pruned during fall and winter months. Trees that have been attacked will have boring dust in the bark crevices and at the base of the tree, as well as gobs of pitch on the outer-bark. Between a fungus carried by the beetle and their meal-time habits, Ips beetles can be fatal to pinyon pine, and dead trees are like roman candles in the WUI. All it would take is one traveling ember from a wildfire and it will ignite, endangering everything around it.

The pinyon pine is Nevada’s state tree and is one of the many treasures of our landscape. For information on pinyon pine, read “Pinyon Pine Management Guidelines For Common Pests.” To learn how to make your home and community safer from the threat of wildfire, visit www.livingwithfire.info.

Hope to see you hiking among the pinyon pine!

Natalie Newcomer

 

It seems like “winter fire” is a current buzz word… well, buzz words. The news is full of stories of fires that have left destruction in their wake in California, and in other places as well. It seems strange that winter should be a time when such devastating fires would catch.

In all of my childhood memories, fires were typically a part of a Nevada summer. Smoke turning the sun into a burning red disc would coincide with hot sidewalks and dripping ice cream. It was only a couple of years ago that I had my first notable experience with wildfire in winter: when the Washoe Drive Fire tore through Washoe Valley in the middle of January.

It was before my husband and I had bought our house, so the event hadn’t really triggered any “what if” moments for us. We simply worried about the welfare of our friends who lived in communities threatened by the blaze and were relieved when the fire was out.

Last Friday I saw a series of PSAs from Washoe County and Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District on the history of the Washoe Drive Fire and the importance of using an ash can to properly dispose of woodstove and fireplace ashes.

According to the longer of the PSAs, ashes were improperly disposed of and four days later, high winds fanned the resulting blaze. The images from the video are sobering. Flames engulf homes as firefighters brave the fire and try to protect whatever they can. The statistics are staggering: one person died, 29 homes burned, over 10,000 people had to evacuate, and the fire left over four million dollars in damages.

Another video talks about how to properly dispose of fireplace ashes. It’s actually pretty simple: scoop ashes into the ash can, pour water over them, close the lid tightly, set away from combustible materials for at least four days, and once the ashes have cooled, dispose of them in the trash.

Being careful to properly dispose of fireplace and woodstove ashes seems a crucial piece in preventing the devastation of winter fires. To see the Public Service announcements, check out the Living With Fire website at www.livingwithfire.info.

Stay Warm and Safe,

Natalie Newcomer

 

The weekend after the Thanksgiving holiday has always marked a prized tradition in my parents’ house: Christmas tree hunting.

When I got married I would drag my husband down our local Forest Service Ranger Station to purchase a tree tag, and we’d go on the annual tree hunt whenever possible.

We always enjoyed ourselves. The fresh blanket of snow, clean mountain air, and sharp smell of tree sap on our fingers made up for our wet pants and frozen toes.

That was before the great shift happened. One particularly snowy Christmas tree hunt, I found the perfect tree, a white fir that stood around 7 feet tall and was coated in a fresh dusting of glittering snow. The branches were full and perfectly spaced and begged to be adorned with ornaments. My husband took a saw to its base and it happened. I felt guilty – stone-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach guilty. I was depriving a tree of its full, majestic life. Normally it would still be looking out over the forest long after I was gone, but I had killed it for my holiday celebration. We took it home, but the holiday just wasn’t the same, and every Thanksgiving since I’ve made sure my weekend held no room for the family tree hunt.

I’ve recently had a change of heart. While browsing the Living With Fire website (LivingWithFire.info), I came across a fact sheet that articulates the benefits of tree thinning. While one part of the paper addresses tree thinning around the home (good information for people with big trees on their properties), the other part addresses forest health. There were a lot of points to sell me on the idea of tree thinning, but there was one that stood out in particular: tree thinning is helpful for reducing wildfire threat. Thinner tree stands means less fuel so that a fire won’t burn so intensely. It also means that fire will stay closer to the ground so that the big, healthy trees won’t catch easily. Read the paper here.

Understanding how Christmas tree cutting allows predetermined areas to be thinned for the betterment of the forest has eased my guilty conscience greatly.

This year’s tree hunt was one of my favorites yet. My tree is stunning, and the forest we left behind will be healthier and will hopefully fare better in a wildfire, thanks to our family tradition.

Happy Holidays!

Natalie Newcomer