Lessons learned from Waterfall helps today

Fire crews scramble to get out of Kings Canyon after the Waterfall fire took off in 2004, destroying several fire trucks and homes in the area.

Fire crews scramble to get out of Kings Canyon after the Waterfall fire took off in 2004, destroying several fire trucks and homes in the area.

Firefighters who battled the Clear Creek fire benefitted from the lessons of another fire that occurred almost exactly 10 years ago.

Between July 10-15, 2004, the Waterfall fire blackened a large swath of the hills on Carson City’s west side, destroying 17 homes and charring 8,700 acres. The final cost of that fire was in excess of $20 million.

Carson Fire Chief Stacey Giomi said that and other fires like the Angora fire at South Lake Tahoe taught regional firefighters how to better work together and coordinate the efforts of different agencies.

Making sure those in charge are working closely together is a good example, Giomi said.

“There was always some one in charge,” Giomi said. “Making sure all the people in charge are standing in one place was important.

“We do a better job of getting of unified command now. It forces us to coordinate resources.”

He said in handling any emergency now, a “whole government approach” is taken. On the Clear Creek fire last week, he said, both the Carson and Douglas sheriffs, Carson and Douglas fire departments, public works and even animal control were all involved even though the fire was completely within Douglas County and mostly on federal land. The fire, which started Wednesday night but was contained by Friday night, burnt 178 acres.

Then, he said, there’s the education of area residents.

“I think we’ve come leaps and bounds in terms of how educated, how cooperative and how proactive our residents are now about being ready to help themselves,” Giomi said.

He said Clear Creek residents were warned about having to evacuate early “and we did have to evacuate them about 1:30 in the morning,” he said.

When crews got the upper hand, they were allowed back to their homes a few hours later.

Giomi said the situation was much different than a decade ago when the area was just starting to do fuel reduction work and just starting to get residents involved in creating defensible space around their homes.

In addition, law enforcement is now providing more control over access by civilians to the areas around a fire — which caused problems during the Waterfall fire. Giomi also said the federal government has expanded its contracted aircraft to make them more available when needed.

Throughout the area, he said, fuel reduction has improved the ability of firefighters to slow or stop the spread of a wildfire. And after a fire, he said there were extensive efforts to prevent cheat grass from coming back in and taking over.

Giomi said one of the problems that hurt early efforts at Waterfall was when his crews had to focus on rescuing a couple of their own who suffered injuries including a broken back during the morning of the first day.

“That happened at the peak area of time when we could gain the most headway on a fire, from about 10 a.m. to noon,” he said.

By the time the two were rescued, down-canyon winds came up in the early afternoon. The fire raced down Kings Canyon then spread both north and south until it stretched from Voltaire Canyon to Ash Canyon in the north, forcing evacuations of homes all the way from Lakeview at Carson’s northern border to Voltaire.

“The combination of down slope winds, warm temperatures, dry fuels and the slope made it a firestorm,” said Battalion Chief Dan Shirey at the time.

It took five days and 2,000 firefighters to contain the blaze.

“One of the fortunate things about a fire of that magnitude is you often get a lot of attention and a lot of funding for fire recovery,” Shirey said.

Federal funding, he said, allowed a lot of rehabilitation, including planting fire resistant grasses such as crested wheat grass to prevent the return of cheat grass.

Shirey said one of Carson City’s unique methods of reducing flammables in the hills to the west is the flocks of sheep brought in annually to eat the cheat and other grasses.

“Projects like that just aren’t being done anywhere else,” Shirey said. “They make a difference.”


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