Forest, wildland fire issues real in rural Nevada

On most days, travelers on the Lovell Summit Road on the north side of the Spring Mountains are in for a treat of cool air and fragrant pinyon and juniper. Sunday was not one of those days.

The smoke that obscured the skyline throughout Southern Nevada wasn’t wafting from Lovell, but from a much larger blazes hundreds of miles away in the Angeles National Forest. If the wind shifted, the atmosphere in the region might also contain smoke from fires in New Mexico.

We’ve entered prime fire season in Nevada, and area wildland firefighters are attempting to contain a 60-acre blaze in mixed terrain in Lovell Canyon. As usual the fuel is dry, and the potential for big trouble is ever present.

It’s not the first time in recent years smoke has risen from Lovell Canyon. In July 2002, the Lost Cabin fire burned more than 4,300 acres and scorched the idyllic fringes of Torino Ranch. The burn scar remains clearly visible more than a decade later, and U.S. Forest Service officials reported it could take approximately 25 years for tree seedlings to reappear.

Why raise the issue of forest and wildland fire danger in a state known for its vast stretches of desert?

Nevada contains 11.1 million acres of forest. That includes most of the sweeping Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, the largest forest in the lower 48 states.

But it’s likely that the only time you’ll read much about wildland fire in Nevada is when homes are threatened outside Reno. Although that’s understandable — lives and homes are always a priority — it misses the much bigger picture.

According to a comprehensive study in 2012 by the Forest Service, a variety of factors threaten our forests. And as our forests go, so go our other natural resources. Expanding population and increasing urbanization and rapidly changing land-use patterns are partly responsible for the increased stress on our natural resources.

At the time of the report’s release, Agriculture Under secretary Harris Sherman said, “We should all be concerned by the projected decline in our nation’s forests and the corresponding loss of the many critical services they provide such as clean drinking water, wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, wood products and outdoor recreation.”

Losses of up to 34 million acres nationally (excluding Alaska) are projected by 2060.

What does this have to do with the way Nevada perceives and manages its vast forest lands?

Everything. Or at least it should.

Although they respond rapidly and battle blazes tirelessly, the paid and volunteer wildland firefighting crews in our state and throughout the West are commonly overwhelmed by the scope and number of fires each year. If people who care about our wilderness actually knew how thin the line of defense is, I believe they would be far more concerned. In fact, they might even place a call to action.

With substantial stresses on those forests increasing each year, a national initiative is in order. President Franklin Roosevelt’s response to a national economic crisis resulted in dramatic improvements in the way America perceives and protects its wilderness.

The stresses from population growth and climate change on those forests are much greater today. When the Obama administration was lavishing federal dollars on a variety of job-creating projects — many of which failed to produce jobs — a new way of looking at our national forests ought to have been part of the agenda.

Whether it means increasing the size of the wildland firefighting services or coordinating assistance from the National Guard and the military generally, a new strategy is warranted.

The smoke gets thicker, the fires grow more intense and the stakes get higher each year.

It’s long past time we invested in a national guard for our national forests.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a daily column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Reach him at 383-0295 or at jsmith@reviewjournal.com.

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