Dark Skies and Northern Fire

For Southern Nevadans, the choked skies on the morning of May 22 meant a day of irritated eyes and lungs. For Northern Nevadans, that day’s Topaz Ranch Estates fire southeast of Lake Tahoe was something more—a warning that this could be a long and destructive wildfire season.

The fire charred about 7,100 acres and cost $1 million in its first day. The figure rose to $3.4 million before helicopter and air-tanker drops, combined with unseasonable cool temperatures and rain, doused the blaze on May 26. The scale of the destruction has Northern Nevadans concerned that the area’s unusually dry brush this year could be tinder for worse fires to come.

North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District Chief Michael Brown said an exceptionally dry winter has vegetation moisture at the lowest level he can remember for this time of the year. Water-starved vegetation and high winds helped two recent fires burn out of control—last November’s Caughlin fire (which destroyed 26 homes, killed one and forced 10,000 residents to evacuate) and January’s Washoe Drive blaze, which killed one and destroyed 29 homes.

“I liken it to a slot machine,” Nevada Cooperative Extension specialist Ed Smith says of the dry winter, desert foliage and high winds. “When all three sevens line up, big things happen.”