Nevada has experienced its own share of destructive wildfires. According to the National Fire Incident Reporting System by the U.S. Fire Administration in 2018, there was an average of 6.3 deaths and 42.8 injuries for every 1000 fires. These figures are higher than the national average - 6.1 deaths and 25.3 injuries for every 1,000 fires.
The typical climate for Nevada is arid and semi-arid, making it the driest state in Western United States. Climate change has, however, made this state even drier and hotter over time. In 2019, following a prolonged heat wave, the state was so hot that it had to set up temporary cooling stations and shelters.
The National Weather Service issued a warning in 2019 that Nevada would experience excessive heat. By August of the same year, Nevada had the most consecutive days with more than 105 degrees heat in all the U.S., breaking the record in the country's history. By the end of that month, the temperature had shot up to 110 degrees.
Heatwaves have become longer and more frequent. The heat waves are causing the snow on the state’s mountains to melt earlier than usual every spring. The precipitation patterns are less predictable and more erratic. This, in turn, reduces the volume of water in the state’s rivers including the Colorado River.
The melting snow and higher precipitation fuels the growth of vegetation in the state. Once the summer comes, the heat dries up the vegetation. The high temperatures become a volatile trigger for wildfires, which are now more frequent and more intense.
How the Climate Crisis Is Aggravating Wildfires in Nevada
The Union of Concerned Scientists conducted a study in 2019, which reported that there will be several days annually when the heat index will be more than 100 degrees. According to the National Weather Service, a heat index of 91 is usually the start of extreme caution for those who are likely to suffer from heat disorders. At 104 degrees, the region enters a “Danger” zone. Compare this to Nevada, which recorded 110 degrees for several days in August last year.
Western America has been hit hard by this heat wave, causing a spread of wildfires. California, Nevada’s neighbor to the West, has been the worst hit by wildfires, followed closely by Nevada. The wildfires have now become more rampant, thanks to the prevalent heat waves.
The higher temperatures are resulting in earlier snowpack melts - more than 4 weeks earlier compared to 50 years ago. The heat also prolongs the fall. Normally, forests are susceptible to combustion by the end of the snowmelt period. Now, with higher temperatures, the snow melts earlier. This results in longer periods where the forests are exposed and vulnerable. The summer heat hitting 90+ degrees increases the vulnerability, with the slightest trigger from human activities resulting in wildfires.
The warm and dry summer conditions encourage pest infestation. This, coupled with lower amounts of water available to plants due to high precipitation, leads to loss of vegetation. This leaves dried out patches that are easily ignited by lightning, extreme heat waves or a careless human action like an irresponsibly disposed cigarette butt.
Other Causes of Wildfires in Nevada
While climate change plays a significant role in increasing susceptibility to wildfires, a range of social and land use factors can also play important roles. Human activities have often been blamed for a majority of wildfires. A report on Wildfires in Wildland Urban Interface regions by Reno Fire department shows the following are among the most common causes of wildfires:
- Poorly managed or controlled fireworks
- Irresponsible and illegal target shooting using materials that are fire hazards
- Vehicles and power machinery that overheat or leak fuel
- Smoking and irresponsible disposal of the butts
- Outdoor grills that are used too close to vegetation or property without proper supervision
- Campfires outside designated pits that are left unattended or poorly managed
- Power lines that can be easily sparked by the slightest touch even by a squirrel, balloon, flying debris or if two wires touch in strong winds, etc.
- Arson and children (especially those who are under 12 years old) playing with fire unsupervised
- Spontaneous ignition of highly inflammable items like hay, oily rags, etc.
These fire triggers are common in wildland-urban interface regions. As numbers of human-triggered wildfires increased, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has issued fire restrictions while using public land in Nevada. According to BLM, about 80% of wildfires in Southern Nevada are due to human causes or triggers. By mid-2020, 97% of the 62 wildfires in the state were caused by human activities.
Dealing with Wildfires in Nevada
For starters, raising awareness of the effects of some human activities can reduce wildfires. According to Hetch, simple actions such as avoiding steel core ammo while target shooting can reduce chances of causing a fire. Hetch advises using spark arrestors and avoid exploding targets while shooting. Additionally, using camp stoves instead of open fires will help reduce the risk of wildfires.
Fire restrictions on public land use prohibits using charcoal stoves for camp fire (or any other fuel such as jellied petroleum, gas or pressurized liquid fuel). It also forbids using motorized equipment on dry or cured vegetation. It is illegal to drive an off-road vehicle without a spark arrestor. A lot more measures have been put in place to reduce human-induced wildfires.
According to a report by the National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook, fine fuel loading across Nevada is 100% to 300%. Fuel loading refers to the total possible amount of fuel that could burn in an area, say an acre, under very extreme conditions.
High fine fuel loading is often due to dead carryover fuel. Fire potentials are expected to significantly rise across Nevada, especially in areas with low grasses. Areas with more than the normal fuel loading with low to mid-level elevation grasses will be drier, hence more prone to fires.
Historically, Nevada witnesses about 12 days of extreme heat (above 90 degrees). However, recently, due to climate change triggered by greenhouse emissions, this extreme heat could go up to 39 days by 2050 and 68 days by 2100 according to a Union of Concerned Scientists study. The extreme heat leaves the wild lands prone to fire.
Programs like Living With Fire are pushing for better preparedness and new approaches to dealing with wildfires across Nevada. In an effort to protect wildlands and aid faster recovery every time there’s a wildfire, Living With Fire promotes a multi-faceted approach to achieve the principles of the U.S. National Cohesive Strategy. These principles include Resilient Landscapes, Safe and Effective Response, and Fire Adapted Communities.
Augurisk is a risk assessment platform for Climate Change, Natural Hazards and Societal Risks. We help people and businesses assess climate risks associated with their properties, so they can better prepare for the future.