Nevada will be the new hotbed of western wildfires – you will pay the price

Topaz Ranch Estates Fire near Topaz Lake, NV on May 22 2012 – a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license – photo: Jeff Sullivan

Opinion

Editor’s note: The Sierra Nevada Ally is inviting local writers to pen approved opinion columns for the publication. We invited Kyle Roerink to write columns on natural resource issues throughout Nevada. 

This year’s fire season –– in Nevada anyways –– is not an anomaly. When history looks back 100 years from now, however, it will likely be considered below average in terms of damage done (fewer than 300,000 acres burned so far).

Compared to other states, we can currently count our blessings this year. But experts warn that fire seasons here will only get worse as temperatures warm, droughts persist, and human behavior disrupts ecosystems. A new study suggests that Nevada may soon be an epicenter of fire activity in the west. And recent fires and 40 years of data substantiate much of what the report implies.

ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine recently reviewed research from the Rhodium Group on the effects of high-emissions scenarios in the future –– i.e. what happens if we don’t reduce greenhouse gases from our atmosphere.

What they discovered was unsettling for me – especially as I was breathing in smoke:

“By midcentury, the northern Great Basin, though not a densely forested region, will become the epicenter of large wildfires. These large, remote counties in Nevada and Oregon see cycles of wet and dry weather that turn the grassland into the fuel for fires that can easily rip through 10,000 acres a day with strong winds,” wrote John Abatzoglou, one of the authors of the study.

This analysis reminded me of the largest fire in Nevada’s history, the 2018 Martin Fire, which burned 439,000 acres of land in rural areas north of Winnemucca. When scientists forecast the future of fires in Nevada the Martin Fire exemplifies what it will look like. The fire moved quickly –– about 11 miles per hour at some stages –– through sagebrush ecosystems. It was 57 miles long and 31 miles wide. It destroyed prime sage grouse habitat and agricultural operations. It took 600 people to extinguish.

A fire like the Martin Fire is a result of warming temperatures, drought, and invasive flora species like cheatgrass. As California and the wetter states of Washington and Oregon proved this year, we know that across the west fires burn bigger, longer, and hotter. They kill more people, wildlife, and plant life. Air quality diminishes and suffocates. Local, state, and federal resources go poof.

Without the Martin Fire, the 2018 fire season would have likely looked more like this year’s season. According to Nevada wildfire data from the Bureau of Land Management, over 215,000 acres have burned in the state this year with about a month remaining in the fire season – the biggest fire was around 60,000 acres.

Data from the last 40 years of fire in Nevada show that things are changing quickly. From 1980 to 1999, 4.2 million acres burned in the state, according to data compiled by the Nevada Legislative Counsel Bureau. From 2000 to 2018, more than 9 million acres burned. That increase should give us all pause. The forecasting of more fires like the Martin Fire should also compel us into action.

We need more proactive management techniques like prescribed burns and other fuel reduction programs. But we must –– first and foremost –– recognize that humans are a driving factor of this crisis across the west. The new research implies the best thing we can do is reduce greenhouse gases.

More fires will mean more families, businesses and ecosystems will face existential threats. More smoke will move us indoors. More resources will be spent on suppression. More of our friends and family will put their lives at risk fighting flames in more dangerous conditions.

Across many regions of the state, where real estate developers see public lands as future subdivisions, insurance companies may one day give pause before underwriting (happening in California).

The federal government won’t help provide greater relief (happened after Martin Fire). Blackouts will be more common (happened this year in Nevada). Utility infrastructure will need to be replaced (See California). Ratepayers and taxpayers will be on the hook (duh). And those of us unwilling to leave the places we love will be left with the bill.

This year Nevada wasn’t the epicenter of fire season. But that may not always be the case. And if those days of inferno do come, we will be inclined to ask: did we do everything possible to stop it?


Kyle Roerink is the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network. He and his wife live in Reno Nevada. Support his writing.


The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence, and invite dissent.