Sheep graze 10 years after Waterfall fire

Sheep on Carson City’s west side once again brought their chorus of “bah” sounds to the area, but no one recalling the 2004 Waterfall fire adds humbug to that repetitive bleating.

The multimillion-dollar fire west of the city swept across wildland areas to reach homes, destroying 17 of them and damaging 14 others in July almost a decade ago. It destroyed one commercial building, damaged two others, and did one or the other to 51 vehicles. It claimed 32 outbuildings. Estimates were that it took some $8 million to control the blaze, which did at least $10 million in personal-property damage.

So bah-humbug just doesn’t apply as sheep bleat and graze in that area each spring. Residents are accustomed to and even comforted by the presence of sheep eating cheatgrass to keep fire fuels at bay near the place where the urban area and wildland foothills of the Sierra Nevada’s Carson range meet. A program that began in 2006, this method of inhibiting fire fuels is viewed as an important one by natural resources and firefighting officials.

“It’s one of many tools in our toolbox,” said Carson City Fire Chief Stacey Giomi of the sheep. “It’s one of the greenest tools.”

He said it benefits the city and its residents, the sheep, sheep herders and owners to have the cheatgrass eaten so fire fuels are cut down between range tree lines and homes on the west side.

“There is no cost to the city,” said Ann Bollinger, city government’s natural resources specialist with the Parks and Recreation Department. “The project has really worked out for us.”

The one-decade anniversary of the fire that began well before dawn July 14, 2004, remains relatively fresh in Giomi’s mind as he shares data on the conflagration that required work from 1,200 federal, state and local firefighters. It resulted in five firefighter injuries and five firefighting units being damaged. It took the city two weeks to deal with, and much longer to deal with in the aftermath.

“I was the acting chief,” Giomi said, recalling the chief then happened to be on vacation. “It was devastating. It was devastating to our community; it was devastating to our employees.”

Giomi also said it taught that people fighting wildland fires near some other community can leave when it is over, which he and other Carson City firefighters had done before the 2004 disaster, but it’s much different to fight one threatening your community and deal with the aftermath.

““The feeling of loss was so much greater in this fire because, when the fire was out ...” he said, “those of us left had to deal with the fact we couldn’t save those homes that were lost.”

Such recollections are among the reasons west-side residents or people with businesses there don’t mind the bleating sheep each spring. Bollinger said the sheep-grazing area runs along the city’s urban west side from Curry Street behind Greenhouse Garden Center to C Hill and on north to the Western Nevada College campus. She said that this year, progress for the grazing, from south to north on the west side, will take about five weeks. It began Thursday.

Bollinger said in some years, it has taken six weeks. Drought means fire risk is very high, she said, but a fine line in decision making on the time line meant five this year because “we don’t want to have a negative impact on our vegetation.” There are about 750 sheep plus lambs, a couple of herders, a Great White Pyrenees guard dog and three or four border collies involved in the program this year.

Giomi and his firefighters received an up-close reminder of the 2004 fire and the value of this sheep-grazing tool last spring, and will again this spring. Firefighters provide water for the sheep, which Giomi has even handled himself.

“I watered them last year,” he said. “Last year was the first year we watered them.” Giomi said the sheep waste no time when water arrives.

“It was like a stampede of them coming out of the hills,” he said, noting the sheep understand what the firefighters’ arrival means. He said that when he pulled up the sheep were more than a mile away, but not for long. “They were coming a mile a minute; they were there in seconds.”

It requires 1,200 to 1,500 gallons to water the sheep each time, but better that than the huge amount of water, manpower and money that must go into battling wildland fires with no guarantee devestation can be avoided.


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