Off To The Races!

Washoe LakeI am so excited! While doing my weekly perusal of the Living With Fire website , I discovered there is going to be Wildfire Awareness Half Marathon and 5K Trail Run on May 9th at Washoe Lake State Park as part of Nevada Wildfire Awareness Month. I’m not in half marathon shape, but the 5K is certainly in my wheel house. And trail running is so much more fun than jogging in town. I looked at the course map and it looks like parts of the trail will be along what formerly was the Washoe Lake shoreline… the lake has been disappearing before my eyes this year. Then the course continues into the “brushes”… you know, sagebrush, bitterbrush, rabbitbrush, etc. I am familiar with these brushes because they often fuel our wildfires. I read that one of the reasons they selected Washoe Lake State Park for this event was because the mountains surrounding it are covered with the scars of previous wildfires. A friend told me about the Washoe County GIS website  where you can see the boundaries of past wildfires since 1990. The fire scars are evidence that we live in a fire environment. To the south of the park you’ll see the fire scars from the Waterfall, Lakeview, Franktown and Duck Hill fires. Looking north you’ll see the Washoe Drive fire scar and others. Those fire scars are a good reminder that while I’m preparing myself for this run, I should also be preparing my home to survive the next wildfire.  For starters, I’ll clear up all the dead vegetation that has accumulated around my home over the winter.

Who wants to join me at the races?  The entry fee for the half-marathon or 5K is $35 with the proceeds donated to a great cause, the Wildland Firefighter Foundation. This nonprofit organization helps fallen firefighter’s families and firefighters injured in the line of duty and you can learn more about the organization or donate to them here. Smokey Bear will be there as well fire engines, exhibits and other activities. So even if you’re not running, there will be lots to see and do. Register for the run here, or go to the Living With Fire website for more information. If you live in Southern Nevada, don’t feel left out. There’s a Wildfire Awareness run at Red Rock Canyon National Park on May 30, and you can register for it here also. Maybe I’ll double my fun and run in both!

Cheers!    Natalie

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Winter is a Great Time to Get Organized

This article was originally posted on 12/03/14.  More good information from Natalie!

Talking with my friend and neighbor over coffee this morning, the subject came up that in spite of high winds and drought this past summer, we escaped with no real occurrence of wildfire to threaten our homes.  Oh sure, there was smoke in the air and daily reports, not to mention pictures,  of the extreme flames and wicked burning of the King Fire in California but no real danger close to home this year.  “Just a run of good luck” my neighbor said shaking her head.  “I know” I responded, “but one of these days our luck is going to run out and that smoke and those flames are going to be knocking on our doors.”   Unfortunately, my friend has the same feeling as many others in the neighborhood: there is nothing we can do about wildfire. If it is going to burn, we will just deal with it when it happens.  I quickly set her straight, telling her there is a lot we can do before we smell smoke and the embers start flying. But it’s going to take the whole neighborhood, everyone in the community to get in gear.  “That will take some real effort,” she said as she headed for the door, “If you see a way I can help let me know.”

I thought about what she said and she was right of course, it will take some effort.  But nothing worth doing is free from effort and right now, as winter approaches, is the perfect time to get this started.  I know that as a community we are vulnerable to the devastation that accompanies wildfire.  I don’t want anybody’s home to burn down, especially mine, and I don’t want to see anyone get hurt.   I also know we are going to need help.  I am no expert when it comes to fire and firefighting and I don’t know anyone who is.  But, I bet right now, with the fire danger down, is a good time, maybe the best time, to call on my local fire department to give us a hand.  I am certain they will have professionals that can give us advice on just how vulnerable we are and what we need to do to reduce the risk we face.  And, there are no doubt experts from the Federal agencies that oversee the land around us that would also be willing to help out.  But for that to happen, I know we must show that as a community of people we are ready to do our part.  Wildfire is not like earthquakes and tornadoes. Unlike those disasters, there is a great deal we can do prior to the fire starting to affect the way the fire burns and increase our chance of survival.  So, first I need to get a planning group of interested neighbors together and outline the steps we need to take to get this community energized and organized, perhaps joining the new Nevada Network of Fire Adapted Communities. I just learned about that at a conference held in October, and you can learn more here.

I’ll bet an invitation for dessert and coffee would bring some neighbors together and get us started.  And, I am sure the folks at Cooperative Extension’s Living With Fire Program would give us a hand.  I need just a little more coffee and then… to the phone.

Cheers!   Natalie

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Fire Season is Not Over

We are playing catch up with some of Natalie’s great articles from last year.  This one was originally posted on November 13, 2014:

Just when I thought I had figured out fire season in Nevada, I got brought back to reality. One of my neighbors works for the local fire protection district. I commented to him that with Thanksgiving approaching we can relax because fire season is over for the year. He politely corrected me. “Natalie” he said “You weren’t here in November of 2011 for the Caughlin Fire were you?” We hadn’t moved here yet. He went on to explain that we were coming up on the three-year anniversary of the Caughlin Fire. That fire burned 1,935 acres, destroyed 28 homes, and damaged an additional 15 homes. An estimated 4,500 homes were threatened. Property loss as a result of the fire was over $10,000,000. He also described other recent winter fires: Carson City’s Laurel Fire, which forced the evacuation of hundreds of people occurred December of that same year and the Washoe Drive Fire which destroyed 29 homes, happened the following January.

I learned that Nevada’s winter wildfires pose some different challenges from the “traditional” summer fires. During the winter, the leaves of deciduous trees and shrubs are dead and lying on the ground, while during the summer months they are attached to branches, green and full of moisture. During the winter these leaves and needles can accumulate next to house, on the roof and in rain gutters. Burning embers produced by the wildfire can easily ignite them and in turn, threaten the house. The Living With Fire Program has terrific information about other ways embers can threaten your home or property.  Download their publication here. Lawns and pastures can also pose a problem. During the summer, they can be effective fuelbreaks when green and irrigated. However, when dormant during the winter, they are dry and can carry fire across the landscape.

It sounds like wildfire preparedness is a year-round thing here in Nevada. So get out your rake and lawnmower, remove those leaves and mow that dry grass.

Cheers!

Natalie Newcomer

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The Dangers of Target Shooting in the WUI

Here is a post from Natalie Newcomer from September 2014. 

A fun part of living in the wildland-urban interface is the range of pastimes that an outdoor enthusiast can find to occupy his or her free time. I love running my dogs in the hills and hiking with friends by the stream near my community. My dad, who is a target shooting enthusiast, suggested hiking out a ways and target shooting sometime soon. His only caution was that we’d need to be sure that fire weather watch or red flag warning conditions weren’t in effect for the day. We’d never want to cause a wildfire.

I was stunned. Target shooting? Cause a wildfire? He had to be kidding, right? Of course I nodded and agreed to save my reputation as a know-it-all with Dad, but after our discussion, I searched the internet for evidence. To say I found a lot on the subject is an understatement. I found a study the Forest Service published last year that spelled out some nerve-wracking details. The agency performed experiments to determine whether or not rifle bullets would ignite organic matter in the right circumstances and were met with a clear answer: yes. Here are some key points from what they found:

  • “Rifle bullets striking hard surfaces can lead to ignition of organic material.”
  • “Ignitions were regularly observed for bullets with steel components and solid copper components.”
  • “Bullet fragments achieved temperatures of 1,200-1,400 °F.”

Read the study here.

Okay, hot bullet fragments can start wildfires. What do I do if I hear target shooting in the hills behind my house on a day when the conditions are just right for wildfire? I called Terry Taylor, fire captain and investigator with East Fork Fire Protection District for some answers.

Captain Taylor, who’s passionate about keeping the public informed about the risks of target shooting concerning wildfire, was happy to discuss the subject. Between 2012 and 2013, he surveyed a portion of western Nevada and found that target shooting caused 37 wildfires. The majority of these fires occurred on unoccupied private or public lands that were within a few miles of residential areas.

Is target shooting bound to start a wildfire? Not necessarily. Captain Taylor said that the conditions need to be right. Target shooting can cause wildfires in critical fire weather or red flag warning conditions especially when practiced near easily ignitable vegetation like dry cheatgrass. Also, all bullets are not made equal when it comes to target shooting and avoiding wildfire. Steel ammunition is the worst culprit, and many people who shoot with it don’t realize what it’s made out of because it’s covered with copper coating.

Captain Taylor suggests that homeowners call local law enforcement and explain their concerns if they hear target shooting during critical fire weather watch or red flag warning conditions. Law enforcement can make sure that the target shooters aren’t shooting unsafely and will also ensure that they’re following city and county ordinances.

Well this know-it-all learned something new! It’s good to know I can call local law enforcement if I’m concerned that a nearby target shooter might cause a wildfire. I’m also glad to have more information to help keep my community safe from the threat of wildfire.

Courtesy of the Nevada Division of Forestry

Natalie Newcomer

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In Case of Emergency – Notify Me!

Courtesy of Nevada Appeal

Last week a brush fire burned near one of my favorite campgrounds. Fire crews were able to quickly contain the blaze and campers were only evacuated for a short time. I thought getting rained out of my July camping trip was a bummer… yikes! What stuck with me was how close another wildfire had been to my home. After all, the reason why those particular campgrounds are some of my favorites is because they’re just a quick trip from my driveway.

When I shared my concerns with my neighbor, she told me how reassured she was that she’d signed up for our county’s emergency notification system. In the event of an emergency in our area, she’ll receive a message that will let her know what’s going on.

I have to admit, I assumed I would be notified automatically.  Now I know that this is not the case, especially since I don’t have a land line.  Thanks to my recent discussion with an emergency services dispatcher, I know what goes on behind the scenes when someone calls 911 to report a fire. (Read that blog article here.)  It makes sense that emergency services would need to know how to get ahold of me to tell me if a fire or other type of emergency threatened my home and family.

A quick google search brought up Washoe County’s emergency management homepage and directed me to sign up for the Code Red system. It was very simple for me to enter my address, cell phone number and email address for emergency notification purposes. I can receive the messages via call and text, and was able to set up a password for my account to adjust my information if it changes in the future.

In their publication, Fire Adapted Communities: The Next Step in Wildfire Preparedness, Living With Fire addresses emergency notification systems. Apparently several Nevada counties use different emergency notification systems that can contact community members similarly to how the Code Red system will contact me. The publication encourages homeowners to enter multiple forms of contact information if the database will allow. If a landline is the only number the database will call, a homeowner may not receive the notification if the power is down or if they’re not home. Check with your county’s emergency management department, local fire department or sheriff’s office to see if there is an emergency notification system being used in your county, and to find out how you can sign up.

I feel so relieved after signing up. I understand that no system is perfect, but I’m glad I have another way to keep apprised of emergencies in my area.

Natalie Newcomer

 

 

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From Smoke to Response: The Dispatcher’s Side of the Story

With fire season in full swing and more acres of Nevada vegetation burning by the day, I recently began to wonder what happens when a 911 call is placed to report smoke or flames. If Hollywood gives any indication, the call is placed and a fire engine lights up immediately, with firefighters rushing into it to go fight the blaze. Well, Hollywood exaggerates on most everything else, so my curiosity, as usual, won out. I spoke with an on-duty supervisor at my local dispatch agency to understand what goes on when someone calls 911 for smoke or flames.

Erin has worked at my local dispatch agency for a while, and in the short time I spoke with her, I could tell she was a woman who was adept at gathering details quickly and who didn’t miss a beat.

She explained that there are three general steps to her side of the call:

  1. The first thing she’ll ask for is an address. If the caller is calling from a land line, then her technology will gather that information automatically, but most people are calling from cell phones these days. If the caller is calling from a cell phone, they’ll need to give her an address or the nearest cross streets.
  2. She’ll then find out what help is needed. If the emergency is a fire, she’ll ask which type. This part is crucial as the answer will determine what kind of help Erin will order. If it’s a wildland fire, she’ll ask for brush trucks; if it’s a house or building fire she’ll request structure vehicles. The right type of help needs to be ordered right off the bat, as having the wrong type of help arrive to the emergency would waste precious time and could be ineffective to fight the blaze.
  3. After she has this information, she’ll set to work entering it into her computer. The National Fire Protection Association says that a dispatcher has to enter the information in the computer within 30 seconds of the call being placed. The fire dispatcher on duty has another 30 seconds to take that information and send it to the fire department.

Erin assured me that dispatchers can usually make this time frame; occasionally a nervous caller who doesn’t have the information ready will cause that time to increase. Dispatchers understand that callers can feel nervous or anxious but their cooperation is paramount. As such, dispatchers are trained to help a caller by asking their questions quickly and directly.

Aside from having their location or the location of where they see smoke coming from ready when they call, callers should let their dispatcher know if there are any potentially hazardous materials inside a structure that’s near or is on fire. They should also be prepared to describe the size of the fire, and if it’s a wildfire, tell how far it is from neighboring structures. Dispatchers will also take down the description of an arsonist right away and a caller should be prepared to give that information.

Courtesy of the Boise Fire Department

After my conversation with Erin, I feel like I know what goes on behind the scenes when someone reports a fire. My biggest takeaway? Location. I’ll make sure to have an address ready if I ever need to report a fire. The Living With Fire Program actually talks about the importance of having your address visible for help when it arrives, and recommends that lettering be four inches high. Read about it in their Fire Adapted Communities publication.

Until next time,

Natalie Newcomer

 

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Fuel Breaks Can Save the Day

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Last July’s Carpenter 1 Fire made national headlines and filled the skies of Las Vegas with smoke. A recent YouTube search turned up a video, posted by the U.S. Forest Service, about the role fuels reduction projects played in saving … Continue reading

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Leave it to the Experts on the Fourth

The 4th of July and a local fireworks show has always been a fixture of my upbringing in Nevada. My family would always pack cold drinks and desserts in a cooler and find a cozy patch of grass or a great spot to set up camping chairs in a parking lot to watch one of the area’s professional firework shows. As a new homeowner living at the base of a mountain range dotted with burn scars, I’m still looking forward to my favorite professional fireworks display, but am also concerned about the potential fire hazard illegal fireworks could cause my community.

A local news story recently confirmed my concern. Their message: leave firework shows in the hands of professionals. The interview showed footage of a partially-burned house where a bottle rocket landed in a nearby juniper bush and ignited the structure. What happened to this home isn’t an isolated incident. According to the City of Sparks Fire Marshal, Bob King, 4th of July fireworks cause more fires in the United States than all other fire causes combined in a typical year. The interview cautions that anyone caught with fireworks in Washoe County can be charged with a misdemeanor, receive jail time and can be fined. If a fire is started by fireworks, they could have to pay for fire suppression costs and for damages caused by the fire. The City of Sparks Fire Department will accept fireworks voluntarily handed in with a “no questions asked” kind of policy. Watch the interview here.

Aside from creating a fire hazard, many people who are lighting fireworks or are nearby as they’re shot off have been gravely injured. I was surprised to learn that a sparkler can generate enough heat to really hurt someone. A fact sheet from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) shows that the average level of heat a sparkler puts off when lit is 1200 degrees Fahrenheit at its tip; that’s hot enough to melt glass, burn wood, bake a cake, boil water and cause third-degree burns. NFPA makes a similar caution to King’s: if people want to see fireworks, they should attend a show put on by experts.

I was happy to discover that there is something I can do if I see or hear illegal fireworks nearby… call 911! The City of Reno provided this information along with some safety tips on grilling and campfires.  Read it here. It’s a good idea to check with your local fire marshal for the regulations in your area.

I can’t wait to celebrate the fourth with my loved ones while enjoying the sights and sounds of the local professional fireworks show. I’m also grateful to my local fire services and other community members who want to keep the holiday a safe one, and keep any fires from ruining the Independence Day fun.

Happy 4th of July!

Natalie Newcomer

 

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Ready for a Red Flag Warning

Late spring is a precarious time for weather in Nevada. Temperatures can drop and soar, the sun can be shining one moment and rain can be pounding the roof of a car the next. So I wasn’t surprised when this week’s weather forecast called for highs that meant shorts and sandals. With summer just around the corner, Nevadans are getting ready to enjoy trips to the lake, frozen treats, nighttime temperatures that are perfect for stargazing and red flag warnings.

I know, you’re thinking I must have lost a couple of marbles along the way, but red flag warnings are part of the package for living in Nevada. As a new homeowner living in the WUI, I want to know what a red flag warning means for my neighborhood and my home.

A YouTube search turned up a video by the National Weather Service, Reno office. This video discusses how forecasters decide if the weather conditions warrant a red flag warning. Local fire agencies determine when the vegetation is dry enough to carry fire. The fire agencies then notify the National Weather Service to begin issuing Red Flag Warnings when the critical fire weather conditions occur. Using weather, topography and fuels – all that great smelling brush around my yard that gives me allergies this time of year – the National Weather Service Team determines if the conditions are right for extreme fire behavior or numerous fire starts. These are the kinds of conditions in which a wildfire could explode out of control before first responders could arrive. The video also discusses what conditions are right for a red flag warning in two scenarios: the first would occur when relative humidity would be lower than 15% and wind gusts would be at least 30 miles per hour; the second would occur during a forecast of dry lightning and winds from thunderstorms. Watch it here and check out the National Weather Service’s fire weather map for the current conditions for your area.

Like your local National Weather Service office’s Facebook page and you’ll be in the know about red flag alerts. The National Weather Service, Reno office shows a graphic for Tuesday’s red flag warning, with a reminder of the kinds of things people need to avoid to be sure they don’t start a fire:

  • Don’t use fireworks or start a campfire.
  • Stow trailer chains properly.
  • Don’t drive over dry grass.
  • Postpone target shooting.
  • Avoid yard work or welding near dry vegetation.

Noted. I’ll avoid these activities and will be sure to encourage my neighbors and friends to do the same on red flag warning days. Looking at the sagebrush around my community, knowing that today’s conditions will continue to repeat throughout the year, I feel encouraged to evaluate my home as well. My yard is clear of weeds and debris but according to the Living With Fire website, I can do more. There are plenty of activities I can do around my home, so that it will have a better chance of surviving if a wildfire starts in the hills next to my house. I’ll add them to my list of summer projects for sure!

Stay safe and enjoy that late-spring weather,

Natalie Newcomer

 

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