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Reno’s fire mismanagement (opinion)

By ThisIsReno
Pinehaven Fire in Reno, Nevada on Nov. 17, 2020. Image: Trevor Bexon / This Is Reno.

Submitted by Thomas G. Daly

While a score of residents of Reno’s Caughlin Ranch neighborhood sift thru the ashes of their homes, destroyed or damaged in the Nov. 17 Pinehaven Fire, they may be asking themselves, “Why didn’t the Reno Fire Department save our house?” 

Good question.

Reno Fire cannot deny it lacked notice of the potential devastation. The conditions—suspected arching power lines as the cause, homes in a wildfire hazard zone, predicted high winds and dry conditions—were the same as in the November 2011 Caughlin Ranch Fire where 28 homes were destroyed.

So, given these conditions, what did Reno Fire do differently this time?  Apparently, nothing.

Multiple wildfire-at-risk neighborhoods in Washoe County now have approved “Community Wildfire Protection Plans” (CWPPs), implementing aggressive fuel reduction projects and vegetation management plans.  Few, if any, neighborhoods in the city do.  

If Reno Fire’s recently received $80,000 Fire Prevention & Safety grant from FEMA is not helping high wildfire risk neighborhoods like Caughlin Ranch, what is Reno Fire Marshal Tray Palmer doing with that grant money?

A crew from the Wildland Fire Fuels Reduction Division. Image: Trevor Bexon
A crew from the Wildland Fire Fuels Reduction Division clears brush from around NV Energy power lines in June 2020. Image: Trevor Bexon

As a contrast, Truckee Meadows Fire & Rescue (TMF&R), with similar albeit much larger grants, has three hand crews working seven days a week to remove fuels from under power lines and in other high-risk environments.

On Red Flag days many fire departments re-allocate or enhance resources including moving engines and crews from low-risk central busines district stations to high-risk suburban stations, doubling or tripling their response capabilities, including roving neighborhood patrols. Some add shift crews of off-duty personnel manning reserve engines during high alert times. Los Angeles City and County fire departments do that routinely when Santa Ana winds blow there. Other jurisdictions use drones and camera/sensor systems for early wildfire warnings. But not, apparently, Reno Fire.

When a major fire strikes, an age-old fire service adage applies: what you do in the first five minutes determines what happens in the next five hours. 

For the Pinehaven Fire, Reno Fire failed to call for mutual aid from other jurisdictions for 20 minutes per the incident report, an eternity during a roaring wildfire. Several Reno engines quickly reported being ‘out of water’, yet nearby TMF&R stations had water tenders available, only waiting to be called.    

Five homes were destroyed with two dozen damaged as a result.

The culture of the Reno Fire department is not to call for help until it is too late, especially from the TMF&R department, as IAFF union Local 731 feels threatened, and Reno Fire Chief Cochran is beholden to the union.

Where is the accountability?

There are no new faces on the City Council. Don’t look for the old ones to rock the boat by demanding an independent investigation of this largely avoidable disaster.

Thomas Daly is a resident of Washoe County.

Submitted opinions do not represent the views of This Is Reno. Have something to say? Submit an opinion article here.

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