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July 25, 2014

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For Mount Charleston evacuees, some answers about the nation’s top-priority wildfire

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Steve Marcus

Smoke from the Carpenter 1 wildfire is shown in the view from Highway 160 near Pahrump Sunday, July 7, 2013.

Mount Charleston Wildfire

A wildfire glows on Mount Charleston above Las Vegas, Wednesday, July 10, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Mount Charleston residents flooded into a town hall-style meeting Sunday hungry for information about the nation’s top-priority wildfire, which has chewed through 14,458 acres and threatens more than 500 structures.

Since a lightning strike set the mountain ablaze on July 1 and 520 residents were told on July 4 they should evacuate their homes on the mountain, rumors have been spreading almost as fast as the fire.

A few residents said the Sunday evening meeting at Centennial High School was helpful. Evacuees learned their homes still were at a tremendous risk but also safe for the moment.

Ken Matonovich, 67, owns a cabin as a part-time residence in the Rainbow subdivision in the Rainbow Canyon area of Mount Charleston. As he was going into the meeting, he said these past few days he had felt like a mushroom: in the dark.

"Only difference is mushrooms are fed crap. We're not fed anything," he said.

After the meeting he said he felt like he had a better picture of what was happening.

Evacuee Katie Tomashowski Corr, 24, said every time she and her family would try to drive to the turnoff point and talk to Metro Police, they would hear horror stories that ended up being debunked.

During the meeting a few residents grew passionate demanding to know particulars on the decision-making process during the first few days of the fire, a time they felt was crucial and suspected and hadn’t been handled properly.

Several residents shushed their frenzied neighbors over such statements.

Most of the critical questions centered on aircraft resources: where they were being used, how many there were and why.

Rich Harvey, team incident commander, said he felt amassing resources hadn’t been a problem. Overwhelming the situation with resources won’t work, he said, noting the more important aspect of fighting the fire was getting the right tools in the right places.

Harvey said there were more than 700 people fighting the fire or providing support to firefighters and evacuees.

Among them are nine "hot shot" crews. Hot shots are a 20-person crew of elite firefighters who have a significant amount of wildland training, said Marty Adell, an incident commander who used to be a hot shot.

A 10th hot shot crew has been requested, and if it arrives it would mean more than 10 percent of the nation's 100 hot shot crews would be focusing their efforts in the mountainside outside of Las Vegas.

Some residents were angry about the heated questioning and voiced their disapproval at the meeting.

"I was offended. I think we're getting more than our fair share. Nineteen firefighters died in Prescott (Ariz.). How dare we say we're not getting our fair share," said Elizabeth Ashley, 55, who lives in the Rainbow subdivision.

Firefighters are prepared for a slow fight against the fire but said they wanted to get people back into their homes as soon as possible. As of Sunday, officials said the cost of the operation had been $2.4 million and included federal, state and local personnel. The fire has consumed more than 14,000 acres, but so far no injuries have been reported and no structures lost.

“We know this is not a one-day event,” Harvey said. “It’s going to be a grind; we know it. We’re ready for the grind.”

Clark County officials said Sunday the fire was 15 percent contained.

Firefighters are keeping a close eye on the Rainbow Canyon, Echo Canyon and Cathedral Rock areas because they are the most at risk, said Fernandez Leary, deputy fire chief of Clark County.

There is plenty of law enforcement in the area, and there has been no looting, Leary said.

Police decided to stop escorting residents up to homes Sunday afternoon because the fire behavior indicated it would be too dangerous, said Officer Bill Cassell, a Metro spokesman. While the situation could change, Cassell said he did not anticipate escorts starting again on Monday.

Adell said he was impressed by the overwhelming support from the community. As to the partially adversarial line of questioning Sunday evening, Adell said he chalked it up to people being afraid and not knowing all of the information.

Adell said firefighters recognized many people cared deeply about the area at stake. Firefighters are trying to do everything they can to protect the homes and wildlife in the area, Adell said.

There are people on staff who help educate firefighters about threatened and endangered species, such as the blue butterfly and desert tortoise, so that they don’t disturb their habitats, Adell said.

For many, though, the thought of what the fire could do is heart-wrenching

When Elizabeth Ashley, 55, moved to Nevada from Los Angeles, she pegged Mount Charleston as the equivalent of beachfront property.

“It’s a lifestyle you’re losing, a dream, that sense of peace and beauty," she said. "It’s not going to be pretty for a long time."

Nancy Barber, 70, and her husband spent years planning and building their home on the mountain. She clipped photos to help the architect understand the look she wanted.

For the past three months she has been cultivating her garden, ordering plants from out of state and hanging bird feeders.

Gardening and bird-watching are two of her great joys, and she’s scared for her beloved birds and plants.

She’s also worried about her 34-year-old son, who loves the mountain. He has hiked the mountain for years and knows everything about his favorite place.

Since the fire, he’s barely come out of his room saying that if it all burns he is never going to go back.

For Mt. Charleston Realty, the fire has been tough. Not only have owner Angie Tomashowski and her family been evacuated from their home, they also have been fielding calls from concerned people who have just closed a deal on a new home and explaining the situation to people hoping for a tour.

Tomashowski said many start out on the mountain as part-time residents and eventually decide they want to experience the "jewel of Southern Nevada" year round.

While evacuations have happened before and there is always the risk of fire, many homes have been on Mount Charleston since the 1940s, Tomashowski said.

“If you’re going to live in a forest you take the good with the bad,” she said.

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  1. I read a number of comments in the original story some repeated here and comments from folks posting in the comment section critical of the USFS and other response teams. You live in a heavily forested area on the mountain but many of you fail to take into account the work necessary to protect your investment against a predictable and regular occurrence. {Full disclosure here: I live in a similar environment, last house on the road, surrounded by forest, All weekend I watched as BIA, Tribal and BLM crews drove up our road on the way to a fire 30 miles further in.] Much comment seems to be aimed at the USFS for not fighting the fire more quickly, not assigned sufficient resources at the outset, not doing enough to protect homes and, oh the horror!!!!, not letting us back into homes and resorts. I'm sorry, but some of you are too damn stupid to be allowed to live in the woods. You are perfectly willing to put the life of some GS5/$15/hr firefighter at risk to save your hummingbird feeders and pristine view but you are not willing to pay the taxes necessary to support draconian efforts. How do I know this.....party registration and voting results from the several precincts making up this area which indicate heavily Republican and heavily anti-tax sentiments.