Gov. Steve Sisolak on Thursday met with representatives from government agencies and private industry to discuss the upcoming 2022 wildfire season. The interagency wildfire briefing is an annual event for agencies to update the governor and state on their status and forecast for the year ahead.
Gov. Sisolak began the meeting with praise for firefighters and those working to manage fire risk in the region.
“I’d like to commend our state, federal and local government and partners in the private sector [who] are working harder than ever to create fire adapted communities and maintain healthy forests, range lands and watersheds across the state of Nevada,” he said.
The governor, however, did not shy away from connecting climate change to the worsening and lengthening fire season.
“While wildfires are a natural part of Nevada’s landscape certainly, the fire season in Nevada and across the West is starting earlier and continuing later every single year. It’s just growing on both ends,” Sisolak said. “Climate change and prolonged drought are considered key drivers of this trend.”
He also referred multiple times to last year’s Caldor and Tamarack fires, which combined burned nearly 300,000 acres in wilderness and populated areas south of Lake Tahoe. The Caldor Fire’s start is still under investigation and may have started from a target shooting father and son. It was driven by a high fuel load and high winds. The Tamarack Fire was lightning caused and was largely driven by wind and dry fuels. Steep and at times inaccessible terrain made the fire difficult to fight.
“On the Caldor fire itself, dozens of firefighters from across Nevada supported efforts to suppress the fire and protect thousands of homes and prevent the fire from reaching Nevada,” he said.
Sisolak said interagency and interstate cooperation were incredibly important.
“I’ve said all along wildfires do not recognize borders. I mean, they burn fuel, and they cross right over the border, and we were lucky last year. A couple of them stopped in California did not get into the Nevada side and cause the bigger problems they could have,” Sisolak said. “But it’s inevitable that will happen, and we just need to be more upfront on this.”
Ryan Shane, a deputy administrator with Nevada Division of Forestry, said higher elevations are expected to be more likely to burn this year.
“That heavy fuel is in a drought condition and could be downright explosive in terms of combustion,” Shane said. “Lower elevation, where fuels are present, could also spread fire but we don’t anticipate a huge amount of fire like we’ve seen on some of our peak fire years in Nevada.”
Shane also said that drought and access to water could become a problem for firefighting efforts.
“Smaller water bodies, places where we typically take water from on a lot of wildland fire instances, will probably not be available, particularly in the more severe exceptional drought areas. So that’s a big concern of ours,” he said.
Places that normally remain wet throughout the year, such as wetlands and meadows, could become dry enough this year to burn as well, he added.
Fuels reduction continues to be a priority
Last year a number of activities took place across Nevada to reduce the amount of fuels available for fires to consume. Near Reno and Lake Tahoe that has included sheep and goat grazing and more recently prescribed fire of burn piles.
In other parts of the state, the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies have conducted thinning operations and construction of thousands of miles of fire breaks.
Paul Petersen, Nevada BLM’s state fire management officer, said fuels reduction and forest management activities are all about balance with the natural environment.
“We do have to balance, you know, from a recreation and a visual standpoint, what are the short-term and long-term benefits,” he said. “But overall, what we’re trying to do is reduce the size of wildland fires and provide a good tactical asset for our firefighters when they’re out there on the ground.”
Pererson added that responsible recreation was also part of that balance.
“If you’re target shooting…make sure you’re not shooting in a bunch of grass. If you’re riding an ATV or off roaching make sure you’re not parking in grass and check your catalytic converter. We always emphasize putting out campfires,” he said. “Everybody who is in the wildland has to take their own ownership and help protect the wildlands.”
Som firefighter jobs remain unfilled
Some fire agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, are reporting significant staffing issues heading into this year’s fire season.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore told a congressional committee that low pay, time away from home and stress on the job, along with firefighters feeling a lack of support when injured, has led many agency staff to resign or retire early. It has also made hiring more difficult.
The BLM’s Petersen said he hasn’t had that problem this year. He said his crews are ahead in staffing over their 2021 levels and are ready for this fire season.
He said he is seeing fewer applicants for firefighter jobs, however.
January and February is the typical hiring season for firefighters, but Petersen said they plan to do more recruitment in the fall of this year, including taking a different approach to finding prospective firefighters.
“We are working with a couple different high schools as well as college for some different recruitment efforts,” he said.
Ty O’Neil is a lifelong student of anthropology with two degrees in the arts. He is far more at home in the tear gas filled streets of war torn countries than he is relaxing at home. He has found a place at This Is Reno as a photojournalist. He hopes to someday be a conflict photojournalist covering wars and natural disasters abroad.