Tom Warren went on his first wildland fire 15 years ago and has seen more than a fair share of flame on the public rangelands of the western United States since then. But in August of 1999, as he stood on the edge of a northern Nevada wildfire complex that would grow to more than 200,000 acres, the sight was overwhelming. Wildland fire ripped through grasslands, stands of pinyon-juniper and native sagebrush. Flame lengths measured 25 feet high or more. At its peak, the fire raced across the high desert at 40 miles an hour.
It was pretty intense, especially when the wind picked up, says Warren, a rangeland management specialist for the Bureau of Land Managements (BLM) Elko, Nevada, Field Office. It was a persistent, mean fire. Standing there, I thought, Never have seen anything this crazy.
Crazy might be the best single word to describe the 1999 fire season, which was devastating in some areas and did not materialize in places less than a hundred miles away. Another description follows the text of a nursery rhyme: Where it was good, it was very good, and where it was bad, it was horrid.
The Great Basin, and in particular northern Nevada, was one place the fire season was horrid. A low pressure system anchored itself off the northern California coast in early August, spinning inland enough moisture and atmospheric instability to generate a series of thunderstorms through much of the Great Basin. Many of the storms were unaccompanied by moisture and fanned by winds gusting to 50 miles an hour. The result was devastating, a firefighters nightmare: in the Great Basin alone, stretching roughly from the Sierra Nevada mountains on the California and Nevada border to the Wasatch Range in Utah, more than 1.4 million acres burned in less than a week. It was the worst fire season in the Great Basin in at least 35 years, wildland fire experts say.
Nevada experienced some of the toughest rangeland wildfire weve seen in a long time. At one point, 75 percent of all wildland fire-fighting resources in the country were in that state, says Les Rosenkrance, director of BLMs National Office of Fire and Aviation in Boise, Idaho.
Not that all the action took place in Nevada. At opposite ends of the continent, Alaska and Florida experienced unusually severe fire seasons. From mid-June to the end of July, the number of acres burned in Alaska jumped from 50,000 to more than one million. Florida suffered through a year where 341,000 acres were scorched. Even the mid-Atlantic states, not known as a wildland fire hotbed, had their share of blazes.
California also experienced an active season. Stubborn wildfires plagued the state well into the fall, perpetuated by strong winds and almost no precipitation during late summer and early autumn. By the end of the year, about 5.3 acres of land burned in about 79,000 wildland fires across the United States.
Do those figures indicate a disastrous season? Not necessarily. Where fire season was good, it was very good. The Southwest and Pacific Northwest, for example, had light-to-moderate seasons. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, northern Idaho and Montana had their bouts with wildland fire, but overall, their seasons were tame. The erratic fire season can be blamed primarily on one factor: La Niña, a pool of cool water in the tropical seas of the Pacific.
Rick Ochoa, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Boise, Idaho, explains. La Niña had a major impact on the fire season, Ochoa says. La Niña usually brings dry winters and springs to the southern tier of states. Thats why weve had a very busy fire season from Southern California to Florida. In the Northwest and Rocky Mountain states, La Niña generally brings dry autumns and wet winters. Nevada, California and other parts of the West had a terrible combination of weather: a windy spring, a hot dry summer, dry lightning in August and September, topped off by a warm and dry fall, Ochoa says.
The mountains started out with record-breaking snows in parts of the West, but they also dried out by late summer. Some well-timed rain in September and a little less dry lightning than experienced in Nevada helped keep the lid on fires in the Northwest and Northern Rockies. La Niña is continuing through the winter. We could have an active season in the southern states again next spring, predicts Ochoa.
No matter how many acres burned, the 1999 season will be considered a success in one important respect. The safety record was one of the best in years. The safety of our firefighters and the public is still our paramount concern, says Rosenkrance, of BLMs Office of Fire and Aviation in Boise, Idaho. The fire year started relatively slow, but it ended up a long season for many firefighters. Some of our smokejumpers, for example, made more than 20 jumps, which is an unusually high number. Some of our crews were out for weeks at a time.
When the season wears on, the risk of injury rises, says Rosenkrance. Overall, our safety record was good in a very busy season, he says. To sum it up in one word, Id say congratulations, to the firefighters.
Another season highlight was the interagency cooperation. BLM firefighters, responsible for most of the public rangelands, were stretched thin, but other agencies stepped in to help out. We couldnt have done it by ourselves. The cooperation from other agencies was tremendous, Rosenkrance says. At one point, when we could see that Nevada was going to get hit hard, we had an additional 300 engines, 40 aircraft and six Type 2 incident teams positioned there to help out. Those crews consisted of people from many agencies. Without that kind of support, the season could have been much worse.
Rosenkrance said that a shortage of trained people is a national concern, as more firefighters near retirement and others participate less in fire because of family and job responsibilities. We need to recruit and train people to meet our future needs. We need a true professional career ladder for firefighters, he said.
Even after the last flame was extinguished, fire season work was far from over. Many fire veterans say that rehabilitating the burn land is even a tougher job over the long haul than fighting fire. It will take years to restore the land, if not decades. To people unfamiliar with the Great Basin, the area may seem a sea of sagebrush and grasses. John C. Fremont described the Great Basin in 1848 as a place of … no wood, no water, no grass, the gloomy artemisia (big sagebrush) the prevailing shrub …
In truth, the Great Basin is a place of stark beauty featuring a network of dynamic ecosystems that support a surprising variety of plants and animals. In the last 100 years, the native character of the Great Basin has changed as annual plants, such as cheatgrass, and noxious weeds have overtaken an estimated 17 million acres in the area. Annual grasses and noxious weeds thrive in areas weakened by fire. They also are highly flammable, helping wildfires to spread. So the more wildfires burn, the more annual grasses spread. The more annual grasses spread, the more wildfires burn. The casualties of the cycle are native shrub habitat and the wildlife that depends on it; forage for livestock; local economies that depend on the livestock industry; recreational opportunities; water quality; wild horse habitat; and cultural resources. Also, wildland fires become more frequent and intense, and thus, more dangerous and costly to combat.
Rehabilitation is a tough job requiring long hours and fast work. It essentially boils down to stabilizing soils and keeping the spread of weeds to a minimum. Rehabilitation is also a race against the clock. Tom Warren, like many BLM employees, went almost straight from working on a fire-fighting overhead team to working on a rehabilitation crew. In rehab, were trying to beat the first snowfall, he says.
BLM is attempting to take rehabilitation to a new level in the Great Basin. A team of experts is seeking ways to not only rehabilitate much of the burned area, but also restore it and protect other areas vulnerable to invasive species. The habitat loss were facing in the Great Basin isnt a new problem, but it may be the last wake-up call to do something, says Roy Johnson, the deputy fire program manager at BLMs Office of Fire and Aviation. The remedies weve used in the past to combat invasive species and restore habitat arent enough. We need a restoration effort like none before to reverse the downward spiral of Great Basin ecosystem health, he says.
Before the wildland fires were controlled, teams were on site, evaluating damage and beginning to draw up rehabilitation plans. Back in his office in Elko, Tom Warren reflects on the hectic summer of 99. Fire can be kind of mean, he says. At one point, everywhere we looked, we saw fire and it was roaring. We just wanted to get it out. As tough as the wildland fires were to control, the most important work, rehabilitation and restoration, is still in full stride, and will be for months to come. When we got the fires out, it felt good to get a breather, Warren says. Of course now, we have even more work ahead of us.
In wildland fire, it seems the work never ends. Crazy indeed.
Story written by
Don Smurthwaite BLM National Office of Fire and Aviation BLM Interagency Fire Center Warehouse Receiving Dock 3833 South Development Avenue Boise, Idaho 83705-5354 USA