Firefighters Brace for Fierce Winds in Nevada

July 19, 2007

Firefighters across Nevada braced for fierce winds Wednesday as they struggled to contain scores of wildland blazes burning across the state.

Red flag warnings issued by the National Weather Service forecast dangerous fire conditions and gusty winds that could hamper firefighting efforts.

“In a sense you feel like we’re under assault from Mother Nature right now,” Jamie Thompson, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Winnemucca, said.

In Reno, where crews are struggling to gain ground against the 1,700-acre Hawken fire, forecasters warned of possible wind gusts to 60 mph by afternoon.

“The conditions we’re experiencing are unprecedented,” Mike Whalen, incident commander from the Forest Service’s Great Basin Management Team, told fire crews as he urged them to use caution.

“This area is experiencing extreme behavior,” Whalen said. “For firefighters, that means be very, very involved and aware that you don’t get too busy fighting the fire so that you don’t see the fire.

“For the public, this means be very afraid of these conditions.

“It’s heads up for everyone,” Whalen said.

On Tuesday, federal crews unleashed an aerial attack on the blaze that was threatening hundreds of homes on the southwest edge of Reno and burning heavy timber in a protected wilderness in a neighboring national forest.

But fire officials worried that strong winds could ground air tankers and helicopters that provide critical aerial support for crews on the fire lines.

No homes had burned and no evacuations were ordered Tuesday, but Washoe County officials issued a local declaration of emergency in hopes of getting additional resources to fight the fire.

Hundreds of residents were evacuated Monday night when the fire broke out, but no homes were lost. Fire officials were concerned that erratic winds yesterday would pose new threats to homes.

The wilderness area is part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, where officials also closed numerous recreational trails near the Mount Rose Wilderness between Reno and Lake Tahoe.

Firefighters also were battling an estimated two dozen lightning-sparked fires ranging in size from a few acres to 6,000 acres stretching across northern Nevada from north of Reno to about 200 miles east near Battle Mountain.

On Tuesday night, the pilot of a small air tanker survived when his single-engine plane crashed while fighting the 3,000-acre Barrel Springs fire south of Winnemucca.

The pilot, whose name was not released, was pulled from the wreckage by firefighters and taken to a local hospital, where he was treated and released, Thompson said.

“Other than being pretty well soaked with slurry and aviation fuel, he was OK,” Thompson said. “They cleaned him up and sent him home.”

In northeast Nevada’s Elko County, one fire about 10 miles northwest of Wells had burned about 4.5 square miles and another about 20 miles west of Wells had burned about 6 square miles.

Most of the fires across the rest of northern Nevada started Monday evening and were burning on federal rangeland managed by the BLM, with no estimate of containment.

“The fires are widely scattered across the BLM’s Winnemucca and Battle Mountain field offices, roughly from near Gerlach to 20 miles east of Battle Mountain,” fire manager Kai Olsen said.

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