Fire season is picking up steam in Nevada. A wildfire that destroyed two homes in the rural neighborhood of Topaz Ranch Estates may have been caused by an illegal burn.
The fast-moving brush fire in Douglas County forced the evacuation of residents and continues to send up huge plumes of black smoke. Sierra Front Wildfire spokeswoman Rita Ayers says more than seven-thousand acres have been blackened and two homes and 17 out-buildings have been destroyed in the area of Topaz Ranch Estates about 20 miles south of Gardnerville, but nobody’s been injured.
Evacuees found shelter and assistance at the Topaz Ranch Estates Community Center, which was staffed by county social services and the Northern Nevada Chapter of the American Red Cross. Local animal control services were also at the evacuation center to care for pets.
As for large animals, the Douglas County’s Sheriff’s Posse evacuated several horses and other livestock to the Douglas County Fairgrounds in Gardnerville. They also handled small, unclaimed pets being delivered to the animal evacuation shelter in Gardnerville.
Steep, rocky slopes in the foothills of the Pine Nut Mountains kept fire engines and heavy equipment away from active flames as the fire burned to the east approaching the Upper Canyon Road neighborhood in the Smith Valley northwest of Wellington.The terrain forced firefighting crews to concentrate on an aerial attack to slow the flames.
Eight air tankers and six helicopters are assisting 560 firefighters on the ground. Firefighters also say flames are moving northeast, away from the neighborhood and is still burning in cheat grass, sagebrush and pinion and juniper trees.
“It’s difficult to get firefighting equipment up there so it is basically an air show at this point,” Douglas County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Halsey said.
Meanwhile, investigators say the blaze may have been caused by an illegal ‘open burn’ that had been quietly smoldering at a private residence. Open burning of weeds and grass is allowed only with a permit when conditions are favorable.
Halsey says a preliminary investigation shows the residential burn exceeded the permit requirements, including the ignition of materials prohibited under county regulations. Halsey did not name the resident or provide other details about the burn, but said the Douglas County Sheriff’s office, Nevada State Fire Marshal and U.S. Bureau of Land Management were continuing to investigate.
One resident who lost everything said the fire department was called to his neighbor’s home two days earlier when an intentional burn got out of control. Fire officials would not comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
Jack Taylor said the fire broke out in the same place. He grabbed a garden hose to try to protect the home where he lived with an elderly, disabled man, but the fire was swift and furious.
“After it hit the chicken coop, we ran,” he said.
Resident Diana Richardson witnessed the movement of the blaze.
“It shot across the valley real fast,” she said. “It was scary.”
However not all the news is grim. Betty Hathaway said the fire started behind her home and that a house two doors down burned to the ground.
“It was just a wall of fire,” she said. “It is unbelievable my house did not burn down.”
Northern winds blew smoke from the fire more than 350 miles southeast to Las Vegas, where a sooty haze obscured surrounding mountains and Clark County officials issued an air quality advisory. Officials say ozone and particulates reached unhealthy and warned southern Nevada residents to limit their time outside, especially if they have a respiratory condition.
A $2 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will help pay for three-quarters of the costs of battling the blaze. Eligible costs include expenses for field camps; equipment use, repair and replacement; tools, materials and supplies; and mobilization and demobilization activities.
“I am grateful that FEMA quickly granted Governor Sandoval’s request. FEMA’s assistance is a welcome contribution in the continued efforts to fight this blaze,” said Senator Dean Heller. “My staff and I are monitoring the situation and will assist in any way we can to help direct federal resources to the region. I am pleased this grant has been made available.”
Authorities remain concerned because weather forecasts call for dry conditions and strong winds, conditions that create extreme fire danger. Officials expect full containment by Saturday, May 26th.
“Even though this area is doing pretty good, we could have some flare-up,” said Sierra Front Wildfire spokesman Mark Regan. “We have a lot of open line right now and a lot of hot spots.”