The City of Reno and Reno Fire Department have released the findings of their investigation into the Pinehaven Fire that raged through the southwest part of town on Nov. 17, 2020—igniting nine years to the day after the massive Caughlin Ranch Fire.
According to RFD Fire Chief Dave Cochran, the fire started just after 1 p.m. in a ravine just south of the dead end of Pinehaven Road. Investigations conducted by his agency and others with cooperation from the utility company NV Energy indicate the fire resulted from a high voltage arc flash, where electricity bridges between power lines and can cause 4000-degree Fahrenheit heat.
Although wind gusts of 80 miles per hour were documented on the day, investigators believe that the power lines—around which there was no melted metal or other debris—never touched. Instead, investigators believe an ionized field caused by dust or water vapor to be the likely cause. Nov. 17 was a windy day during which a storm was brewing.
Video from a surveillance camera atop the Silver Legacy parking garage shows an arc flash at 1:01 p.m. and then smoke beginning to billow at 1:02 p.m. By 1:03 p.m., the surveillance footage shows smoke rapidly spreading across the hillside; it was also then that authorities received their first 911 call to report the fire.
No negligence on the part of NV Energy
The investigation into the Pinehaven Fire showed no negligence on the part of NV Energy, RFD officials said—noting that the utility company was not involved in their investigation but was cooperative.
This has led many—residents of the area included—to question what might have been done to avoid the fire.
According to RFD Fire Marshal Tray Palmer, homes in the area butt up against what his and other fire agencies refer to as the Wildland Urban Interface—the spaces where development meets wildland areas.
“This has heightened our awareness that the landscape has changed so dramatically in our foothill neighborhoods.”
Palmer said his agency and others are working on mitigation efforts, including a plan to clean up combustible material from nearby Rosewood Canyon in March and a free program whereby dumpsters will be made available to area property owners to allow them to clean combustible materials and brush from around their properties to create fire defensible spaces.
The City of Reno received grant funding from the Nevada Division of Forestry to aid in clearing brush from areas surrounding homes in the southwest. Additionally, RFD advises homeowners to consider removing evergreens like junipers that are planted right up against their homes. The fire department also has other resources available to homeowners to teach them how to create fire defensible spaces around their properties.
What can be done going forward?
Reno City Council member Jenny Brekhus—who represents Ward 1, which includes three neighborhoods where homes were damaged or destroyed—said she’s been awaiting fire investigation results and the opportunity for a public event to discuss the Pinehaven Fire throughout the two months since it happened.
Brekhus said development and drought have changed the fire landscape in Reno.
“This has heightened our awareness that the landscape has changed so dramatically in our foothill neighborhoods,” she said.
Planning for fire risks and the availability of resources to fight blazes is on the City of Reno’s radar—including considerations concerning where to place future developments, she added.
“So much in city governance, city placemaking is managing and addressing and maintaining what you already have that’s built. Particularly as a community gets older, ages, you have so many phases of development,” she said, noting that some older neighborhoods in Reno were not built according to contemporary state Wildland Urban Interface codes—and that the city, fire department and residents in those areas must work together to mitigate fire risks.
Brekhus thinks it’s also worth considering how many more developments are allowed to encroach into the Wildland Urban Interface.
“There are approaches designed that you can deploy through your regulations—both your building and your development code—to make sure that you’re going to be as risk free as possible,” she said. “But, also—and this is one that’s been very important to me—is how many people do you continue to put into risk. Do you continue to go into suburban densities as you move up into the foothills where, at now, under the Washoe County code, they’re at semi-rural? Do you want to continue to suburbanize up into the foothills? Or do you want a policy basis—and I think our master plan has this—that promotes infill that makes more risk-free community growth in areas where it’s not as fire prone?”
Some Reno residents have questioned whether it’s worth lobbying for underground power lines in the region or the possibility of planned power outages in certain areas on high wind days.
The 1,200-acre Pinehaven Fire resulted in 1,300 homes evacuated, the destruction of five homes, three homes being heavily damaged and an additional 21 homes mildly damaged. It took fire crews from RFD as well as many other agencies—including the Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District, Cal Fire, the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection, the Nevada Division of Forestry, among others—to fight the blaze.