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April 19, 2014

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Wet winter set stage for big fire threat

Extra inch of rain means there’s lots more to burn

HOMES NEAR DESERT AT RISK

Although many people think the desert can’t burn, that’s not true, experts say. Grass on mesas and in valleys is now dry, ready to burst into flames at the drop of a cigarette butt or on exposure to a car’s catalytic converter.

Every thunderstorm or carload of tourists near Tom Paddon’s Mount Charleston home worries him.

The 55-year-old grew up in the Spring Mountains as the son of one of Charleston’s first firefighters, so he knows all too well that one lightning strike, unattended barbecue or carelessly tossed cigarette can send a wall of flames down the canyon in which he lives.

In federal assessments of fire risk, his neighborhood off Kyle Canyon Road is rated nine on a 10-scale, with 10 being the most risk.

“Fire season is always bad up here,” Paddon says. “Wet year, dry year, there’s always something that can catch fire.”

This fire season in particular, however, has the potential to be particularly bad in the mountains that ring the valley, but also in the desert that is closer to more homes, experts warn.

The winter set things up by being wetter than normal. The Las Vegas Valley’s precipitation total since Jan. 1 is almost an inch more than the average for this time of year. Average annual precipitation in Southern Nevada is about 4 inches, so an extra inch in the first half of the year packs a punch. More rain means more spring and summer plants, especially invasive grasses and trees. When it gets hot, those plants dry out, making perfect tinder for lightning strikes or errant cigarette butts.

“Fuels are in place right now after the wet winter that we had and snow accumulation in the high elevations, and that gives us some concern,” says Jorge Gonzalez, the Nevada Forestry Division’s fire management officer in Southern Nevada.

“It’s also a common misconception that desert can’t burn,” Gonzalez said. “Fires happen in Southern Nevada in a cyclical nature. We’ll get wet winters and have a lot of grass grow. When you get out into the desert, you’ll notice the grass on the mesas and in the valleys, and that’s what fuels the desert fires.”

And homes near undeveloped land, whether desert or forest, could be at risk. In 2005, for example, a massive 31,600-acre fire in the Red Rock National Conservation Area was stopped by firefighters just as it started to threatened nearby Calico Basin homes and businesses. And last year two invasive plant-fueled wildfires at the Wetlands Park near Sam Boyd Stadium had nearby homeowners on edge.

Experts say it could just as easily happen in any neighborhood abutting open desert.

Unlike the Chaparral forests of Southern California, whose blazes send smoke into Southern Nevada each year, fire was never part of the natural scheme of things in the Mojave Desert and Spring Mountains, according to UNLV plant scientist Scott Abella. Sure, lightning struck and burned the occasional Joshua tree and charred mountain forests from time to time. But rampaging fires consuming thousands of acres, such as the 2005 fire near Red Rock, aren’t historically normal.

Fires in the Southwest’s mountains and deserts have increased in occurrence and intensity over the past 50 years, according to a study published in Science magazine in 2006. That study, led by scientists from the University of California at Merced, blamed man-made changes to the landscape and climate change.

In the Spring Mountains, the rise in average annual temperature and increased carbon in the air has caused trees and other plants to expand their ranges. Young trees are taking over meadows and scrubby bushes are taking over the understory of forests. The parts of the forest floor not covered in brush are carpeted with highly flammable pine needles.

Crews hired by homeowners and federal agencies clear as much of this fuel as they can — residents of Kyle Canyon recently filled trash bins with more than 22 tons of pine needles — but the mountain’s too big.

In the desert the culprits are invasive plants. Even in the driest years, exotic grasses pop up. In wet years, like this one, these highly flammable plants carpet the valley floor. Even riverbanks aren’t immune. Salt cedar trees have choked out native trees along rivers, lakes and washes across the Southwest, forming walls of highly flammable tinder.

On federal land the fire prevention plan focuses on keeping people from setting fires. When fire restrictions are in place, mostly during the summer, visitors are restricted from smoking outside cars, setting off fireworks and lighting fires outside approved fire pits.

Roughly half of the wildfires in the mountains are started by people who do not follow fire restrictions, according to U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Judy Suing.

The percentage is even higher in the desert, where anything from an unattended barbecue to a hot catalytic converter can spark a wildfire.

It’s more dangerous than most valley residents understand.

With growth came sprawl and with sprawl came housing developments that abut undeveloped land covered with invasive grasses or pine needles and more heavily visited by potentially reckless people.

“We’re more wary this year,” says Kim Otero, a Mount Charleston resident and member of the Nevada Fire Safe Council. “On top of the weather, there are more people from the valley visiting places like Mount Charleston. We just want to ensure those people are aware of and understand the restrictions.”

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