4th Brings Fire Worries

By: John Tyson/AP
By: John Tyson/AP

With the Nevada landscape tinder dry, fire officials are cringing and keeping their fingers crossed that the Fourth of July won't spark a rash of wildland blazes.
So far, lightning has caused the most damage during this year's
fire season, starting 16 blazes last week alone that burned about
140,000 acres.
But the Fourth of July is always of concern to fire officials,
and this year much more so. The state is carpeted with brittle, dry
grass that could ignite with a tiny spark.
The biggest threat, officials said, is illegal fireworks.
"We will have some starts from fireworks. It's a given," said
Mike Dondero, state fire management officer.
Last week's fires show just how volatile the fire hazard is, he
said.
"I knew this was probably going to happen," Dondero said.
"With all this fuel, all we needed was ignition.
"I think we can expect the same thing to happen again, and it
could be even more severe."
As a rule, Nevada's major wildfires are started by lightning.
During a 10-year period ending in 2004, 70 percent of Nevada's
fires were lightning-caused, burning 87 percent of the total land
charred by fire, according to the Western Great Basin Coordinating
Center.
But some of the most dangerous and damaging fires are human
caused.
"Human-caused fires tend to be closer to homes and that puts
more people at risk," said Rex McKnight, state fire officer for
the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. "And with as much fuel as
there is and as dry as it is, all it will take is one little bit of
carelessness."
Unlike lightning fires that are predicable with the change in
the weather, human fires can happen anywhere, anytime, Dondero
said.
What occurred in 2004 underscores the danger. Overall, it was a
mild fire season for Nevada, largely due to an absence of lightning
storms. Only about 41,000 acres burned statewide - or about half as
much land as was charred by the largest lightning fire near Elko
last week.
But last year was also a destructive fire season for the
Reno-Carson City area, and all the major blazes were started by
people.
An abandoned campfire was responsible for the worst, when a
wind-whipped fire erupted out of the hills west of Carson City that
July, destroying 17 homes and a business. A couple of weeks later,
teenagers playing with illegal fireworks in north Reno started a
brush fire that raced up a steep slope and burned four more homes.
And the following month, a target shooter in the hills north of
Washoe Lake sparked another fire that rocketed into vulnerable
south Reno neighborhoods, destroying another six homes.
Before last week's lightning fires, officials in the Elko area
had noticed a worrying trend.
"Until we had those fires, for every two lightning fires we had
a human start," said Mike Brown, spokesman for the Elko BLM
office. "That's entirely too high."
Elko BLM recently started a public relations campaign to
emphasize the dangers of human-caused fires and how people can
avoid starting fires by common mistakes ranging from careless
smoking to driving off-road over grass and using power tools
outdoors.
"Some of it is stuff that in other years might not result in a
start but this year will," Brown said.


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