The weather forecast for Reno on Thursday, November 17, 2011 called for strong southwest winds of 20-30 mph, with gusts up to 60 mph. Western Nevada was experiencing an “abnormal dryness pattern” and the moisture content of wildland vegetation was very low. Shortly after midnight, windblown tree branches struck a power line in the Caughlin Ranch area, generating sparks that quickly ignited the dry vegetation. The wind driven fire spread rapidly, at times generating flames in excess of 100 feet in length and producing a storm of embers. Four days later, the event that had become known as the Caughlin Fire was declared controlled.
The fire took its toll on Reno. More than 1900 acres had burned, 28 homes destroyed and another 15 homes were damaged by the fire. Property loss was valued at more than $10 million. An estimated 8,000 people were evacuated in the night, many without the benefit of lights and electricity. One citizen died of a heart attack and two firefighters were injured.
American author George Santayana wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” What should we remember from the Caughlin Fire so we fare better during Reno’s next wildland-urban interface fire? Based on the Caughlin Fire After Action Report, prepared by the City of Reno Fire Department, post-fire interviews with firefighters, homeowners and a few personal observations, here are some important memories from the Caughlin Fire that should be retained:
Garage Doors Were Left Open: During the chaos, some residents left their garage doors open as they drove out while evacuating. Without electricity, garage doors had to be opened manually. Out of habit, drivers hit their remotes thinking that their doors would close behind them. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Garage doors stayed open, giving entry to windblown embers which ignited combustible materials inside. Close your garage door (and other openings) when evacuating.
People Were Unprepared to Evacuate: Many people had to evacuate on short notice, in the dark and without power. Under these conditions it was difficult to find pets and pet carriers, important papers, computers, etc. To evacuate safely and effectively, homeowners need to prepare in advance. For advice on how to prepare for evacuations, read “Fire Adapted Communities: The Next Step in Wildfire Preparedness” (http://www.unce.unr.edu/publications/files/nr/2010/sp1010.pdf) and go to page A25 of the 2012-2013 Reno YP phonebook.
An Abundance of Dead Vegetation Existed Near Homes: The ignition of dead vegetation by windblown embers was a contributing factor to home loss during the Caughlin Fire. Dead vegetation includes fallen leaves and needles, dried grass and weeds, and dead twigs and branches. Because the Caughlin Fire occurred in November, dead vegetation was prevalent throughout Reno neighborhoods. Routinely remove dead vegetation from your property.
Junipers Contributed to Home Loss: Once again, firefighters identified ornamental juniper shrubs, such as Tam and Chinese juniper, planted next to houses as a contributing factor to home loss. A 2006 study evaluated the combustibility of 34 shrub species. Ornamental juniper was ranked as one of the most flammable plants tested. Remove juniper shrubs from within 30 feet of your house and replace them with better plant choices, such as those described in “Choosing the Right Plants for Northern Nevada’s High Fire Hazard Areas” (http://www.unce.unr.edu/publications/files/nr/2007/eb0701.pdf ).
Embers Entered Roof Gaps: During the Caughlin Fire, embers entered the gaps between concrete tiles along the roof hips and ignited homes. Wood shake or shingle roofs should be replaced with a roof covering rated Class A, the highest level of fire protection. But even Class A roofs can still be vulnerable if there are gaps along the roof edges and ridges. These gaps allow leaves, twigs and other debris to accumulate under the roof covering. Fill the gaps with “bird stop” material or mortar.
Learning from these memories and taking action can better prepared us for the next wildfire event. For more information on community wildfire threat reduction, go to www.LivingWithFire.info.
Living With Fire Website Helps Nevadans
Experts predict that wildland-urban interface fires like the Caughlin Fire will become even more common in the future. Fortunately, Nevada residents have an excellent resource available to help them learn how to reduce the growing wildfire threat to their communities — the Living With Fire website (www.LivingWithFire. info). The website is a joint effort between the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension and Nevada’s local, state and federal firefighting entities. Some of the features of the website’s Learning Center include:
“Choosing the Right Plants for Northern Nevada’s High Fire Hazard Areas”: This is a comprehensive, full-color booklet that presents good and bad plant choices for Nevada’s fire-prone areas.
“Fire Adapted Communities: The Next Step in Wildfire Preparedness”: This well-illustrated publication discusses the five elements of a fire adapted community: defensible space, built environment, community protection, access and evacuation.
“The Combustibility of Landscape Mulches”: The results of an evaluation of the combustibility of eight popular landscape mulches are reported in this publication. The authors also make recommendations for the use of mulches in the residential landscape.
“Fire Adapted Communities”: This animated video describes the five elements of a fire adapted community. A DVD of this production is also available.
“Be Ember Aware”: Select from twenty-one locations on or near your home that are vulnerable to embers during wildfire and learn what to do to avoid ignition in this interactive program.
A collection of brief video interviews of firefighters and homeowners are included under this tab in the Learning Center. Interviews are done immediately after a wildfire to capture first hand experiences. This is a unique and poignant feature of the website.
Additional programs featured on the site include:
Community Fire Hazard Assessment Reports
In 2004 and 2005, Nevada’s wildland-urban interface communities were rated in terms of their wildfire hazard and mitigation projects were identified. The information is presented by county. More recent community hazard assessments are also included.
Community Wildfire Protection Plan Template
A “fill-in-the-blank” template for preparing a Community Wildfire Protection Plan for communities located in Washoe County is available under the CWPP Program. Templates for other Nevada counties will be added in the future.
The Living With Fire website provides a wealth of wildfire threat reduction information for Nevada residents. If you can’t find what you’re looking for or for printed copies of many of our publications, contact us at 775-336-0271. You can also follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/LivingWithFire.Lake Tahoe Basin residents should use www.LivingWithFire.info/Tahoe