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Fire dispute: What caused the Poeville fire last summer?

By Bob Conrad
Published: Last Updated on
Poeville Fire. Image: Trevor Bexon

The Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District says a fire that started on Peavine Mountain this past summer, which burned eight homes and buildings, has an undetermined cause.

That’s not what the Bureau of Land Management says, though. Both agencies simultaneously investigated two fires that started on the mountain. Both have different conclusions.

BLM says fire number two, Poeville 2, the one that spread and burned homes and buildings, was started by a rekindling from the original fire, Poeville 1, the night prior.

“After suppressing the Poeville Fire and anticipating a Red Flag Warning forecasted for the following day, Saturday, June 27, [Truckee Meadows Fire & Rescue (TMFR)] crews remained on scene for an extensive amount of time given the fire’s small size,” Truckee Meadows Fire wrote in a statement. “Approximately…40 minutes of suppression efforts were needed to extinguish the Poeville Fire of June 26, after which TMFR crews remained on scene for an additional…11 hours cold trailing the perimeter and mopping up the 1.4-acre fire.  

“Cold trailing is a method used by firefighters in which they walk the fire perimeter, carefully inspecting and feeling in the ground with their bare hands to detect heat or fire. The last TMFR unit departed the scene at 10:05 a.m. on June 27, 2020.”

Poeville 2 started about an hour later.

Truckee Meadows Fire said there was considerable human activity near both fires, and they are seeking potential witnesses to Poeville 2, from 10:15 to 11:15 a.m. on June 27.

“Two unidentified individuals were seen on video in a side-by-side ATV near the origin’s area with the reporting party,” the fire agency reported. “According to video footage, these two individuals would have been the first to witness the Poeville 2 Fire. Video showed that they drove their ATV up the hill near the area of origin and told the reporting party that they had attempted to extinguish the fire.”

A “homemade barbecue grill” was found in the same area that allegedly was not there the night before, leading investigators to conclude the barbecue was left there during the time of the Poeville 2 ignition.

The BLM determined, however, Poeville 2 was started by a rekindling of Poeville 1. If true, that means Truckee Meadow Fire left Poeville 1 while it was still active — something the agency disputes, citing manpower, extensive monitoring and the amount of water used to contain Poeville 1 — similar to how the Little Valley Fire of 2016 burned more than two dozens homes and buildings in Washoe Valley.

A Reno fire truck parked in an area scorched by the Poeville Fire in north Reno. Image: Trevor Bexon
A Reno fire truck parked in an area scorched by the Poeville Fire in north Reno. Image: Trevor Bexon

That fire was determined to have been rekindled because of extremely high winds after the Nevada Division of Forestry left the scene. Homeowners settled with the State of Nevada for $25 million after a jury found NDF grossly negligent.

BLM says the Poeville 2 fire “backed downhill.”

“Therefore, the cause was determined to be equipment … [sic] rekindle was a subsequent factor,” BLM’s investigator wrote.

Truckee Meadows Fire disputes BLM’s conclusion. Truckee Meadows Fire maintains its investigation relied on independent scientific experts, and officials said BLM did not complete standard procedures for fire investigations.

“The BLM report identified the cause of the rekindle to be a specific Ephedra bush located approximately five…feet inside the perimeter of the original fire as being the source of ignition of the Poeville 2 Fire,” Truckee Meadows Fire officials said. “This bush type does not burn well under fire conditions, and several still dotted the landscape after this fire. TMFR Investigators believe it could not have been a competent ignition source after being soaked with water and monitored for hours.

“Finally, the BLM report did not include interviews with the first responding fire crews. While the report indicated that the Fire Investigator leading the investigation assigned an Assistant Origin & Cause Investigator to interview the fire crews, the task was never completed.”

Truckee Meadows Fire said it asked BLM to conduct its own separate investigation because of early indications Poeville 2 could have been a re-ignition of Poeville 1.

“Our investigation looked at a rekindle as well, and we did not find any evidence that would support that, so it goes to undetermined, meaning we did not find a competent ignition source anywhere along the previous fire’s perimeter,” said Truckee Meadows Fire’s Deputy Chief for Fire Prevention Dale Way.

Way said their investigation would have called it a re-kindle if that’s what the evidence showed.

“It comes out the way it comes out, and had it been that way, that’s exactly what we would have said,” Way added.

BLM officials said they stand by their report.”The BLM stands behind the facts of the report,” said BLM’s Lisa Ross. “The Poeville fire was fueled by Red Flag conditions that included wind gusts up to 40 mph and created extreme burning conditions.”

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