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As Fire Season Begins, Nevada Faces Driest Conditions In 20 Years

(AP Photo/Lance Iversen, File)

In this Nov. 17, 2020, file photo, wooden steps burn after wildfires destroyed several homes in Reno, Nev.

Summer is right around the corner. And with warmer weather and relaxed COVID-19 safety measures comes the potential for pool parties and barbecues.

But it also means fire season is upon us. In the wake of 2020, when more than 4 million acres burned in California alone, how is this year shaping up so far?

Nevada, like most Western states, gets a lot of its moisture from melting snow from the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, said Gina McGuire Palma, a fire meteorologist with the Great Basin Coordination Center.

However, this year there was not a lot of snow in the mountains.

“Coming from the past winter and spring, our snowpack has been below normal in the Sierra for much of the season, and also in the mountains of Nevada, we’ve seen below normal snowpack,” she said, “Over the southern portion of the state, our snowpack was even worse. We were pretty much near-record minimums in the south.”

In addition, she said the snow that is still in the mountains is melting quickly, which will have an impact on the fuel moistures, which is the amount of moisture in vegetation available to a fire.

“Our fuel moistures will likely peak earlier and lower than normal and will dry out quite a bit faster,” she said.

To make matters worse, McGuire Palma said Southern Nevada has not seen a significant amount of moisture from the past two monsoon seasons that roll through during July and August.

There is some good news the models for this year show that might be changing.

“Right now, it is looking like the monsoon should set up on schedule, which is typically early July for Southern Nevada, and that is mainly being based off the fact that we do need a strong ridge of high pressure to develop in the Southwest U.S. to bring us really hot and warm conditions going into later May and June for that monsoon to really develop,” she said.

She said the monsoon season could be fairly robust this year based on the current models.

“There is always that caveat,” McGuire Palma said, “We’ve expected it in the past and it hasn’t materialized in some years, similar to last year.”

Any monsoon moisture the state gets this year will be better than last year because there was no moisture at all last year.

Monsoons actually don’t do much to increase the water supply to Southern Nevada, she said, but the cooler, wetter weather impacts firefighting efforts.

Plus, any moisture impacts the overall drought conditions.

“The more moisture we can get in parts of Nevada, the better our drought conditions will be,” she said.

The connection between drought and wildfire fires is complex.

“It is not as simple as saying, ‘just because we’re in drought, it’s going to be a horrible fire season,’” she said, “It depends on the fuel type and it depends on location.”

Monsoon rain increases the growth of grasses which are excellent fuel for wildfires. If there is less rain, then there is less grass for fires to burn. McGuire Palma said the only benefit to a drought is that it decreases the amount of grass.

However, that is not true of fires in Nevada’s timber areas.

“They respond very negatively to drought,” she said, “They’re drier, deeper down in the plant. They are more receptive to ignition and they’re more receptive to extreme fire behavior.”

Most of Nevada’s large fires tend to be in grasslands where they can spread fast and far, but small fires can be more destructive if they’re in populated areas.

Hot temperatures in the summer contribute to those fires because they lower the moisture levels in the vegetation to critical levels, McGuire Palma said.

With that said, she noted that wildfires can happen in any conditions at any time in any part of the state.

“Those fires truly can happen any year, but the bigger risk, especially when we have dry lightning outbreaks, of more extensive fires that become problematic would be over southern and eastern Nevada,” she said.

Fire officials are also concerned about the Sierra Front once the snow melts later in the fire season.

Adam Mayberry is the Fire Communications Manager for the Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District, which jurisdiction covers 1,000 square miles. His agency has already responded to wildfires.

“We have already responded to a handful of wildfires, probably three or four, that have been in excess of 100 acres,” he said.

Three of those fires have been in the Sparks area.

He said the fire behavior they’re seeing now is similar to what they observe in June.

“We expect a very robust fire season,” he said.

Mayberry explained that 40 percent of fires reported in unincorporated Washoe County are wildfires, and most of those are caused by human activity.

“It is really important to recognize that nine in 10 wildfires are started by humans,” he said, “So, when you put that into perspective, it really sends a strong message that all of us need to work together and to take prudent action when we’re out in the wildland.”

Activities like target shooting, off-roading, and camping can be responsible for starting a wildfire, Mayberry said.

One spark from a campfire that wasn’t properly extinguished or from steel-core ammo hitting a metal target can create a major problem. He suggests people doing those activities bring a fire extinguisher or water to stop a fire from spreading.

While people who live in the West are programmed to believe that fire season is late spring through early fall, both Mayberry and McGuire Palma say that is not the case.

“If the weather is just right late in the year, when we haven’t had a lot of moisture, certainly can create just as much destruction as we typically think of as wildfire season,” Mayberry said.

McGuire Palma said that even in the winter if a spark finds a dried-out patch of vegetation it can create a hazardous fire.

Gina McGuire Palma, Fire Meteorologist, Great Basin Coordination Center; Adam Mayberry, Fire Communications Manager, Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District

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Bert is a reporter and producer based in Reno, where he covers the state legislature and stories that resonate across Nevada. He began his career in journalism after studying abroad during the summer of 2011 in Egypt, during the Arab Spring. Before he joined Nevada Public Radio and Capital Public Radio, Bert was a contributor at KQED and the Sacramento News & Review. He was also a photographer, video editor and digital producer at the East Bay Express.