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Officials welcome prospects of rain to calm relentless mountain wildfire

But rainfall could bring flash flooding, potentially endangering fire crews

Image

Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

A plume of smoke from the Mt. Charleston fire rises into the air Wednesday, July 10, 2013 at near the command center at Centennial High School.

Updated Thursday, July 11, 2013 | 12:38 p.m.

Firefighters Head Out To Fight Fire

Firefighter Felix Poncho, based in Grants, N.M., uses binoculars to watch lightning strikes at Centennial High School before leaving to fight the Mount Charleston wildfire Thursday, July 11, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Mount Charleston Fire - July 10

Holly Thomas looks for a particular size of firefighting clothing at a clothing exchange for firefighters working the Mt. Charleston fire Wednesday, July 10, 2013 at Centennial High School. Launch slideshow »

Night Shift on Mount Charleston

Barely visible firefighters work the perimeter of the Mount Charleston fire, Tuesday, July 9, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Mount Charleston Wildfire Tour

Smoke from the Carpenter 1 wildfire is shown from Kyle Canyon Road on the way up to Mount Charleston Tuesday, July 9, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Monsoonal moisture moving into the Mount Charleston area on Thursday and Friday should help slow the spread of the massive mountain wildfire, an official in charge of the firefighting effort said Wednesday night.

"It brings opportunity, advantage and a little bit of hope that it ends up where we need it," said Rich Harvey, incident manager of the Carpenter 1 fire, which had spread to nearly 28,000 acres by Thursday morning. The fire was about 15 percent contained.

"The rain will buy us a couple or three days, but it won't kill it."

The National Weather Service is predicting a 50 percent chance of thundershowers Thursday, along with the possibility of flash flooding in the Mount Charleston area, where the fire has been spreading since a lightning strike set it off July 1 near Carpenter Creek. There were reports of light rain on the mountain Thursday morning.

An executive with the company that operates the Resort on Mount Charleston said Thursday that “we’re scared, we’re nervous, we’re upset” about reports that the fire had crept dangerously close to the resort.

“We never really imagined anything like this,” said Michael Crandall, senior vice president of the Siegel Group.

Crandall said July was an extremely busy time of year for the resort, drawing weddings nearly every weekend along with such other events as family reunions and corporate retreats. He said the fire had forced cancellation of 15 events.

“That’s not to mention daily room business from locals in Las Vegas who like to get away to Mount Charleston for a couple of nights because it’s always 20 degrees cooler on the mountain than it is on the Strip,” he said.

Even if the resort escapes fire and smoke damage, Crandall said, it would take a week to reopen it. That being the case, the fire has already taken a significant toll on the operation.

“That’s how we survive up there is through our events and catering business,” he said.

Late Wednesday night, the Weather Service's radar showed some light rain falling just west of the major fire area.

Suzanne Shelp, information officer with the incident management team, said the rain was still about nine miles away the fire.

Firefighting crews will be briefed early Thursday morning about watching out for the effects of flash flooding — flowing debris, plus tumbling rocks and boulders, Harvey said.

"The biggest threat we have right now, if I have to go out on a limb, is rocks," he said. Boulders that might have been leaning against a bush for 20 years might start moving with the water if that bush has burned away, he said.

"Stuff can really come tumbling off the hillside," he said. "Rocks and firefighters are a lousy combination. We like to sit on them and have lunch on them. But we don't like to dodge them."

Heavy rains can also make walking through the slopes difficult, he said. Already, one firefighter has hurt an ankle and another has twisted a knee, he said.

"Add into that wet and slippery and it just gets more difficult out there," he said.

Harvey spoke about the predicted rain after his nightly update for some 300 to 400 evacuees at Centennial High School.

He said Wednesday's firefighting activity was a better day than Tuesday and that the fire containment was now at 15 percent. On Tuesday, high winds spread the fire into the Prospect Ranch area, where six structures were consumed.

The winds pushed the fire north from a treeline into the desert north of Kyle Canyon Road's mile marker 6. The fire that "slopped over" the roadway into the desert was held to only 300 acres, said Randy Swwick, an official with the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

The fire growth on Wednesday was not in residential areas of Kyle Canyon, Lee Canyon and Trout Canyon. More than 500 residents who live in those areas were evacuated on July 4.

Though most resources are going toward fighting the east portion of the fire, close to 150 personnel based out of Pahrump are still working to contain the blaze, Pahrump Fire Chief Scott Lewis said. Much of the contained area is on the west side of the fire, and Lewis said firefighters near Pahrump were still needed to mop up and contain those parts of the blaze.

The primary fire command center moved to Centennial High School from Pahrump over the weekend, due to the quickly spreading fire on the east side of the mountain, Lewis said.

Pahrump command center facility manager Lee Hughes, a retired Utah firefighter with years of experience fighting wildfires in Montana, Idaho and California, said he wasn't too worried about the fire spreading closer to Pahrump, as the flatter and more arid area around the 36,000-person town would make fighting the fire much easier than in the elevated mountain area of Mount Charleston.

Support staff at the Pahrump base, which is spread all over the Bob Ruud Community Center, indicated that fire officials would most likely move out of the site within four to five days. But all that could change depending on how the wind drives the fire, Hughes said.

"It's a lot like being in the military," he said. "It's a lot of hurry up and wait."

The public is prohibited from entering Lovell Canyon Road at Highway 160, Trout Canyon Road at Highway 160, Lovell Summit Road, Carpenter Canyon Road at Highway 160, Wallace Canyon Road at Highway 160, Bristlecone Trail, South Loop Trail, North Loop Trail, Griffith Peak Trail and all surrounding areas. Early Thursday afternoon, officials announced that Scenic Loop Drive in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area had been reopened.

Clark County Deputy Fire Chief Eric Newman thanked Mount Charleston residents who gave him information to share with firefighters about which homes had ammunition stores and which had propane tanks.

He said fire crews were still protecting the homes.

Metro Police Capt. Jason Letkiewicz joked that it was firefighters, not Metro, who asked information about ammunition.

"That has nothing to do with us. We are not here for your ammo," Letkiewicz said.

He said Metro is working on a phased-in re-entry plan to get displaced residents back into their homes. Although there was no timetable yet, he said the plan was to make sure that utilities were available and the area was safe before residents return. He said they will be escorted back by police in groups, starting with those who live at the top of the mountain then those who live at lower elevations.

Harvey said firefighters are able to get the water they need on the mountain. On Thursday, they will put into service a helicopter base across the street from the Clark County Sheriff's substation.

They will also have six to eight "pumpkins," which look like large orange swimming pools, scattered up and down the canyons on both sides of the road to provide dip sites for the helicopters to fill their buckets. The pumpkins are filled with water from hydrants and from water tender trucks.

The pumpkins are placed as close to the fire as they can get, Harvey said. He said pilots have also scouted other water sources around the fire, such as lakes and ponds, and have obtained permission from the owners to use them.

After Wednesday's meeting, residents were asking questions about their properties and when they might get back.

Aimee Williams, who has lived with her husband, Dan, in the Old Town development in Kyle Canyon for 36 years, said they were eager to get back to their A-frame cabin.

Williams said she was in Colorado at the time of the evacuation on July 4, but when she returned on Saturday, July 6, she was allowed to go to her home to retrieve photos and jewelry and some clothing. She has been staying with one of her daughters.

"It's heart-wrenching," she said. "I just want to go home. It's going to be an eerie feeling when we go back. ... I'm a big hiker. I know it's going to be a lot different."

Brandon Hampton, a public information officer for the Great Basin Incident Management Team, said Thursday's public meeting will be at 5:30 p.m., but will not be at Centennial School. The new location will be the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area Visitor Center in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Park.

Staff reporter Riley Snyder contributed to this report.

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