(Editor's note: This discussion originally aired July 12, 2019)
Fire season is here and parts of Nevada are already burning.
Last year the state’s largest wildfire on record, the Martin Fire, scorched more than 400,000 acres of rangeland.
California was also struck by historic disaster in November, when the Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise, killing 85 people.
That fire began when high winds knocked down power lines, a threat that utilities in both states have started to address with more observation cameras, infrastructure upgrades and programs to preemptively shut off power during hot, dry and windy weather.
NV Energy has announced that beginning this year, it will do the same under a new program called Public Safety Outage Management (PSOM).
Kevin Geraghty, Senior Vice President of Operations for the utility, said the idea to cut power during the most severe fire danger started in San Diego about a decade ago after a devastating fire there.
“There are moments in time where the fuel on the ground is so dry that the fire signs – the humidity and wind speeds and all those other kinds of things – make a difference then you get gusts of wind. It just increases the potential that those lines could be a source of ignition while you have the most extreme dry fuel on the ground,” he said.
Geraghty said the areas that will be impacted is about 200 miles of powerlines that snake through Mt. Charleston in the south and the east side of the Tahoe basin in the north.
The power company will use a highly localized model to determine when to cut the power.
“Almost like a check engine light," he said, "The model that we’ll use will tell us, ‘hey, there’s a concern,’ and once we have that concern we’ll reach out into our community, our emergency responders get an understanding of what they’re seeing on the ground before we would actually make a decision to cut power.”
Besides the new plan to cut power, Geraghty also said NV Energy will be doing a much more thorough job of cutting fuel around the powerlines.
He said crews have always cut back branches that might cause a problem but now they'll be cutting an even wider path around the lines and looking for potential problems outside that path, for instance, dead trees yards away that might fall and land on a line.
While forest fires are a large concern in Northern Nevada and in the mountains of Southern Nevada, a risk on the lower levels are non-native grasses that have taken over desert areas, which historically didn't see wildland fires.
Todd Bates is Assistant Fire Management Officer for the US Fish & Wildlife Service based in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge north of Las Vegas.
He says the fuel load of non-native grasses like cheatgrass and brome, two kinds of grass that have been brought into the state and spread through open areas, are bringing fire to the Mojave Desert.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is dedicated to managing wildlife habitat and fire can have a devastating impact on that habitat.
Bates said many of the fires he deals with are caused by carelessness by humans.
People who don't use designated fire areas and then don't make sure their fire is completely out. He also said smoking and shooting, either a spark from ricocheting bullets or shooting at something they shouldn't shoot at like a propane tank, cause fires.
"We're really trying to drive towards more responsible behavior from the public. In the sense that we share it together, we're not owners we're stewards," he said, "And if we want to see our lands continue to exist and have our national parks, our national forests as a place we can visit safely, we also need to do a good job as a general public to make sure we're behaving appropriately."
The risk of fires is becoming more extreme. California officials have said their season now extends year round. Bates agrees that the fire season in Nevada is getting longer.
"We are seeing a much longer fire season," he said, "We're seeing fire season typically used to occur from June to September are now pushing from May to November," he said.
Conditions in the West are warmer and drier, which dries out the fuel much faster, Bates said.
State Fire Marshal Bart Chambers agreed that fire season is getting longer as conditions get warmer and drier, which is why his office is working to get the message out about fire safety to everyone, including people coming to Nevada to visit.
"My office reached out to our neighboring states with the state fire marshal and forestry officials to have them participate in this messaging as well so when you come into Nevada you have a specific message that meets fire prevention," he said. "But when you leave Nevada and go into the respective states, you would have messaging there. Again, it's not one state, it's a regional approach."
Chambers said educating the public about fire prevention, including managing fuel around homes and knowing what to do if there is a wildfire near your home is important, especially as people move to the state from other areas that may not have experienced wildfires.
Kevin Geraghty, Senior Vice President of Operations, NV Energy; Todd Bates, Assistant Fire Management Officer, US Fish & Wildlife Service; Bart Chambers, Nevada State Fire Marshal
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