Just when I thought I had figured out fire season in Nevada, I got brought back to reality. One of my neighbors works for the local fire protection district. I commented to him that with Thanksgiving approaching we can relax because fire season is over for the year. He politely corrected me. “Natalie” he said “You weren’t here in November of 2011 for the Caughlin Fire were you?” We hadn’t moved here yet. He went on to explain that we were coming up on the three-year anniversary of the Caughlin Fire. That fire burned 1,935 acres, destroyed 28 homes, and damaged an additional 15 homes. An estimated 4,500 homes were threatened. Property loss as a result of the fire was over $10,000,000. He also described other recent winter fires: Carson City’s Laurel Fire, which forced the evacuation of hundreds of people occurred December of that same year and the Washoe Drive Fire which destroyed 29 homes, happened the following January.
I learned that Nevada’s winter wildfires pose some different challenges from the “traditional” summer fires. During the winter, the leaves of deciduous trees and shrubs are dead and lying on the ground, while during the summer months they are attached to branches, green and full of moisture. During the winter these leaves and needles can accumulate next to house, on the roof and in rain gutters. Burning embers produced by the wildfire can easily ignite them and in turn, threaten the house. The Living With Fire Program has terrific information about other ways embers can threaten your home or property. Download their publication here. Lawns and pastures can also pose a problem. During the summer, they can be effective fuelbreaks when green and irrigated. However, when dormant during the winter, they are dry and can carry fire across the landscape.
It sounds like wildfire preparedness is a year-round thing here in Nevada. So get out your rake and lawnmower, remove those leaves and mow that dry grass.
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,