Five years on, Mount Charleston residents and firefighters recall the Carpenter One wildfire and ponder what we’ve learned
Several wildfires started in the Spring Mountains — and all over the western U.S., for that matter — during the hot and dry summer of 2013. Among them is the fire remembered as Las Vegas’ very own: Carpenter One. Sparked by lightning on July 1, the Carpenter One fire would eventually consume 28,000 acres in Red Rock and on Mount Charleston, spilling over ridges familiar to millions of outdoor enthusiasts, scorching popular recreation areas, and licking the edges of mountain neighborhoods. In the eight weeks it took to contain Carpenter One, no one died or was injured, and only a few human structures were destroyed. But the proximity of the fire to urban areas, along with the destruction of so much natural landscape, put the fear of God into mountain residents and the officials who protect them. Five years on, what do they remember about that day? What has recovered, and what remains to be done? Here are five people’s recollections and ideas, in their words.
Retirees Becky and Duffy Grismanauskas moved to Mount Charleston in 1989. Becky, a Henderson native who’d dreamed of living in the mountains since she was a kid, chaired the Mount Charleston Town Advisory Board on July 1, 2013, when the fire started. It had been burning in the Spring Mountains for a few days, prompting evacuations in Trout, Kyle, and Lee Canyon communities, when the Grismanauskases had friends over for a July 4 barbecue.
“We were still living in Rainbow Canyon, and our house faced west toward the lodge area and Cathedral Rock and Charleston Peak. We had all, of course, noticed the smoke. You’re very aware of smoke, especially living in a mountainous region. And we were all looking at it out on our deck and saying, ‘Oh, that smoke’s really grown.’ And all of a sudden, while we just happened to be looking up at that ridge, it literally exploded. It just blew up! … Well, my husband and I, at that point, had lived there for 24 years. My husband had been a rural coordinator for Clark County Fire Department, so he has been to and seen many incidents like this. We had never evacuated before, even though it was requested of us, because we felt we could be more help on the mountain. But my husband and I had an interior fire in 2007, and we lost all our animals and our house was gutted. We had to rebuild. … The people that were at our house for the barbecue were just kind of talking and stuff, and I said, ‘Everybody go home. I’m out of here. I’m going to start packing up the kitties.’ I mean, I knew that this was serious. This was not some little fire.”
The Grismanauskases stayed first at a relative’s home and then at a pet-friendly hotel during Mount Charleston’s 13-day evacuation period. Their home, like all those in Rainbow Canyon, was untouched by the fire. Two structures in Harris Springs were the only structures that burned.
Jorge Gonzalez has never been anything but a firefighter, the job he’d dreamed of doing since childhood. Today, he’s the Mount Charleston Fire Protection District chief, but in 2013 he did that job for the Nevada Division of Forestry, which then had jurisdiction over the area. Late June to early July, Gonzalez was keeping an eye on several lightning cells roaming the Spring Mountains and sparking small blazes. Meanwhile, wildfires were raging across the parched Southwest, draining resources, and putting officials on edge.
“The minute we noticed the fire activity crest the ridgeline (above Mount Charleston), we initiated evacuations. As you know, Kyle has four major subdivisions, a hotel, a lodge, and several other enterprises in the canyon. … After the evacuation, we had more resources come into the canyon, and we started putting in fuel breaks and making sure that there was security around those properties and those subdivisions. … In the Kyle Canyon area, Rainbow Subdivision, which is our biggest, the fire reached the fuel break and, thankfully, we were able to hold the fire at the fuel break. … It was all-hands-on-deck from Clark County Fire, Forest Service, Metro, Nevada Highway Patrol, and BLM. We had a mutual aid response from the city of Las Vegas, Henderson, North Las Vegas. It was pretty much a full day of activity, at a minimum 16-hour days. … It was really traumatic to see some of the residents evacuate their properties and see their concern. To see a resident pretty much walk away from his property, you remember that. I remember that.”
One of the “resources” called in to help Gonzalez and the other local agencies was a Bridgeport, California-based helitack crew. On it was Carrie Thaler, now the district fire manager for the Spring Mountains. She’s fought thousands of wildland fires, she estimates, in her 23 years on the job. What stood out about Carpenter One?
“It got so big so fast. It went from a type 5, which is your small, single tree fire, to a type 1, which is basically the biggest fire that we manage, in a matter of three or four days. That’s a lot of people, a lot of information, a lot of messages that, if you’re not careful, you can drop. … Carpenter One was also a little bit crazy because there are so many homes and so many people there. We were staying in the Santa Fe hotel, and it was a little bit surreal, because you also had people staying there who had been evacuated. It was emotional. … For as much fire activity as you saw and the flames that you saw, the fact that the fuel break that we had in actually was successful and saved homes was, I think, the most remarkable thing to me on that fire.”
Even after Carpenter One was put out, the danger wasn’t over. The fire had stripped the hills of the soils and surface vegetation that harness runoff. A month after the fire was contained, in September 2013, floods devastated the Mount Charleston and Red Rock communities that had narrowly escaped being burned, including Kyle Canyon. Dennis Lovell, the current chair of the Mount Charleston Town Advisory Board, remembers it well.
“We had a normal summer thunderstorm, a couple of inches real quick. I was in the house. I stepped outside just to look and see — you know, it was really cloudy. And I could hear it. I looked across my lot through my neighbor’s property and could see a 5-foot wall of water coming down the mountain, with debris, trees, rocks. It was going through my neighbor’s property. I ran down there. It had dammed up, the water was knee-deep, and I was breaking dams down just trying to get it to go through. It was a lot of mud, and a lot of water. It took out the road, took it down three feet, four feet. You couldn’t get out on Rainbow Canyon Boulevard. Then, an hour or two later, another storm came through, and same thing: just a big wall of water. So we had a double dose that day. I’m up high, but there were some people who really had a lot of damage. (The Grismanauskases) lost both vehicles. It flooded the whole bottom of their house. There were about a dozen other homes that were damaged. Trees were floating down the street, ponderosa pines. There’s a YouTube video of a truck floating down the road. That’s Duffy Grismanauskas’s truck.”
Becky Grismanauskas estimates the flooding, which was not covered by insurance, cost them $400,000. A year later, after rebuilding, it happened again — a second flood, worse than the first. Although the Grismanauskas’s house wasn’t as badly damaged, many more were. Despite being deeply touched by the help of friends and neighbors, they left the mountain in 2014.
Donn Christiansen didn’t see the Carpenter One burn area until he started his job as Spring Mountains National Recreation Area manager in October 2015. Even then, two years after the fire, Christiansen could see that he had his work cut out for him. The popular South Loop hiking trail was still closed (it’s since reopened); threatened butterfly habitat was destroyed; deer, elk, and other wildlife had moved out in search of new grazing areas; watersheds were severely damaged; and miles of dried-up vegetation, fodder for future fires, remained around campgrounds, houses, and roads — the target of continuous fuel-reduction efforts.
“It takes a long time for these areas to recover, especially given our drought conditions that we’ve been experiencing. It’s only been five years; you estimate probably a 25- to 40-year recovery timeframe. … We’ve been doing a lot of seed collection and grow-outs for different plant species that we can then restore back into some of those areas to try and stabilize the ground more, to prevent additional scouring that happens. Sometimes it just takes time for the rocks to break down into soil or to be replenished naturally. And some places will never be the same. … It’ll take a long time for the ponderosas that all burned up to come back — probably not in our lifetime, because those are 60-, 70-year-old trees or, in the case of the bristlecones, hundreds of years old. Our goal is to try and help it as much as we can, and sometimes that’s leaving it alone and letting it do what it has to do. We intervene where we can, but we can’t always put it back the way it was.”