By Amanda Ketchledge
Reno, NV- A warmer and fiery future may be in the cards for Nevada as the drought on the West Coast worsens.
Three major ingredients fuel the region’s fires: drought, heat, and winds. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, all of Nevada is in a drought, and Northern Nevada counties are experiencing severe drought conditions with Douglas, Carson, and Washoe suffering the most.
With precipitation in Northern Nevada well below average, drought and weather conditions make a formula for disaster that could spark a major wildfire at any moment. Extremely low humidity, triple digit temperatures, and high winds have caused the National Weather Service to issue several Red Flag Warnings this season. But what are these warnings and why do they matter?
The National Weather Service issues a Red Flag Warning once conditions fall within a certain criteria. This includes when winds are 30 to 40 mph or greater, humidity is extremely low, around 10 percent, and temperatures are greater than 75 degrees.
Forecasters may initially issue a Fire Weather Watch if conditions aren’t as bad as the criteria for a Red Flag Day. However, when the fire danger becomes imminent, the watch is raised to a Red Flag Warning.
So what’s the difference? A Fire Weather Watch means that critical fire weather conditions are possible, and that a Red Flag Warning could occur. A Red Flag Warning is considered the highest alert.
Up until recently, Red Flag Warnings were only intended for the fire department, but there are things the community can do to help prevent a big wildfire from occurring on a Red Flag Day.
Chris Smallcomb, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service, says the public should take notice when these warning are issued.
“All it takes is a trimmer hitting a rock and creating a spark and then there’s a fire,” said Smallcomb.
Driving through dry vegetation, doing yard work, or leaving a campfire unattended could result in destructive consequences.
“On a Red Flag Day, if a fire starts, it’s going to expand rapidly out of control before the first responders can get it under control,” said Smallcomb.
Red Flag Warnings alert the fire department about possible hazardous weather conditions that could increase the risk of a wildfire. They have to be ready to respond quickly before the fire is out of control.
The Reno Fire Department places additional firefighters on duty, staffs more fire engines, and utilizes more equipment to be able to respond to wildfires. Fire Chief Mike Hernandez of the Reno Fire Department says their main concern is accessibility during the event of a fire. Wildfires could occur anywhere, but typically they happen in forested areas. Rugged terrain and distance can make it harder for firefighters to reach the fire fast.
“It will take us a very long time just to get out there,” said Hernandez. “So right off the bat, we’re fighting an uphill battle.”
Rapid response is vital for firefighters. Helicopters and planes that drop water and fire retardant make all the difference. They are considered crucial in the initial attack that prevents small blazes from becoming infernos.
“The fact that they’re dropping thousands of pounds of weight, the planes have a tendency to jolt up,” said Hernandez. “It’s a pretty dangerous procedure.”
But when high winds are present on a Red Flag Day, the aircraft won’t fly. The fire department takes into consideration all of the conditions when these warnings are issued. It can mean the difference in containing a wildfire or it growing out of control.
Hernandez also says that other than dry lightening and nature-caused fires, the number one cause in the region is manmade. Anything from pine needles collecting in rain gutters to trees too close to your home, all are dangerous invitations for an ember to catch on fire.
A 30 to 50 foot defensible space for your home is advised and Hernandez encourages homeowners to make sure vegetation is properly spaced around the home in an effort to make it as fire proof as possible.
Several wildfires have already raced across the dry landscape of Northern Nevada this year as the drought continues. Shorter winters and hotter summers reduce the area’s chances of recovering from these harsh conditions. Red Flag Warnings may become more prevalent in future forecasts due to the lack of rain and snow.
Firefighters aren’t the only ones who should take notice when Red Flag Warnings are issued. It’s important for the community to take steps to prevent wildfires as well. One less spark could mean one less wildfire.
For more information on living with drought, please visit the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension website http://www.unce.unr.edu/programs/sites/drought/.