The Mount Charleston area of the Spring Mountains is still recovering from the 2013 Carpenter 1 Fire, and it takes a team of people to help make sure the area is safe.
On July 1st, 2013 the Carpenter 1 Fire erupted and over weeks burned 27,881 acres of the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, otherwise known as Mount Charleston. If you lived in Las Vegas in 2013, you remember the fire and flames burning our beloved Mount Charleston. Families and businesses had to evacuate. More recently, 2020 brought the Mahogany Fire to Mount Charleston. If you saw the black smoke rolling over the normally blue Las Vegas skies summer of 2020, you had a small glimpse of the damage compared the Carpenter 1 Fire.
Before the Carpenter 1 Fire was 100% contained through the hard work of hundreds of wildland firefighters, the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team jumped into action. A BAER team is a combined force of environmental experts from different backgrounds including engineering, plants, wildlife, maps, cultural history, soils, water, recreation and information who all bring different skillsets to the team. As soon as a fire is mostly contained, a BAER team is on the ground ready to create an assessment of damage. Their job is to identify threats to human life, public property like roads, buildings, the land, natural habitat, and cultural areas. Putting public safety first, the team will ensure the nearby residents, staff at the Visitor Center and Ranger stations are safe. They identify damage to buildings, roads, trails, picnic areas, and campgrounds and block off areas damaged. The team can also make repairs like installing drainage pipes on roads and trails to limit further damage.
Checking the damage to the natural environment is also very important. The team will learn how the fire damaged plants, soil, and habitat for wildlife including the habitat for for Sensitive, Threatened and Endangered species, including native species like the endangered Mount Charleston Blue Butterfly and the Threatened desert tortoise. The team will also find if there has been any damage to cultural sites and historical areas and make efforts to protect them from possible further damage. Within seven days of a fire the BAER team must have their recommendations ready. This allows the team to receive emergency funds quickly to begin work as soon as possible, before additional damage is done from other weather events like flooding.
Before the Carpenter 1 Fire, the Harris Springs Canyon Watershed had been ranked as “Functioning Properly” meaning the watershed was healthy and functioning well. After the fire, the watershed was stripped of its rank due to the devastating fire damage. Harris Springs Canyon Watershed was not the only watershed affected. The Trout Canyon, and the Upper Lovell Canyon Watersheds were affected too. Full recovery from the fire is expected to take 40 years according the to BAER Team's Carpenter 1 report.
The BAER team identified that the pinyon pines and junipers were a major part of what burned across the forest, however all sorts of vegetation in the Spring Mountains' wide range of elevations and plant zones were burned. In some areas, the top part of the soil, the rich soft brown organic material, burned away leaving just the inert dirt and rock underneath. In some cases the soil itself burned, changing its natural characteristics. This soil became hydrophobic, or water-repellent, and unable to soak up rainfall. When rain falls on water-repellent soil, it rolls off quickly and flows downhill, collecting and potentially creating a flood.
The BAER team made recommendations to stabilize the aftermath of the wildfire. The recommendations included applying weed free straw mulch in areas that had lost soil. This would help stabilize the soil on the hills and absorb rainfall. The straw also helps secure any seeds still present in the soil. Weeds, if introduced to a wildfire area, can outgrow the native plants, taking over an environment and changing it permanently. Recommendations were to watch for particularly non-native weeds. Ditches, drains, culverts and additional road infrastructure were either fixed or installed to help limit damage done to flooding after the fire. Trails needed repair and the addition of drainage treatments. This helps trails from being washed away, and sensitive environments near the trails protected from flooding. Warning signs on roads and trails were installed letting people know about dangers and to stay out of hazardous areas. Barriers, sandbags, and backfill were placed around buildings and in areas to limit flood risk and damage. The roads and drainage pipes all had to be checked and fixed to ensure they were safe, and had to be fixed again after major floods. With these recommendations from the BAER team the area could begin to recover.
There are many dangers to people and the environment in an old wildfire area. Trees died from the burns and their roots are now rotted out leaving the trees ready to fall over, especially if disturbed. Be careful in these areas by staying on roads and designated hiking trails to avoid a tree fall. Massive flooding before the fire was completely contained ruined the roads and swept away soil and fallen trees. These devastating floods washed away soil filled with seeds that would have grown and helped the area recover naturally. The roads were destroyed and needed repairs. Due to these dangers, the Harris Springs Canyon was closed to recreation from 2013 to 2019.
With the closure, plants were given a chance to grow back naturally. Some areas of the watershed needed a little help from people. Crews made catch basins and moved dead trees to slow down water flow, thus helping the soil stay on the hillsides and in the canyon. But with destruction and fire brings new life.
It is true, fire is a natural process in many forests, even healthy in lots of ways. For example, Fires can clear old and dry plants, add nutrients to the soil, and refresh habitat. Fires clean up leaf litter buildup and dead wood. Fires can even clear out the understory of forests allowing sunlight in and allow different plants to grow, changing the environment. Some plant species won’t regenerate without fire. Fire managers have used fire to help keep environments healthy by using controlled "prescribed" burns to reduce the amount of fuel, lowering the chances of a massive wildfire in the future.
What’s not natural, is how often fires are started by people. Nevada Fire Information states, “84% of wildfires nationwide are caused by people.” The Carpenter 1 Fire was determined to be started by lightning, but other fires more recently have been suspected to be started by people. Fires can start from the smallest spark with the right dry conditions. All it takes is dry grass, wind, and a cigarette butt, campfire ember, or a spark from a dragging trailer chain or tumbleweed stuck in a wheel near an exhaust pipe to start a fire. These are all small things that have created catastrophes in some communities. Here are ways we can protect our beloved mountain community from an unnecessary wildfire started by humans.
Fire safety tips to protect the Spring Mountains
• Campfires: Check here to see if you are allowed a campfire. Dry grass and lack of rainfall can make the mountain to unsafe to have campfires
• Visit Nevada Fire Information for tips and all of Nevada's fire conditions
• If you are allowed a campfire, never leave it unattended and have a shovel and bucket nearby to extinguish. Use the drown, stir, feel method.
• Campfire Safety | Smokey Bear
• Use spark arrestors
• Secure your chains while towing equipment. Don’t let them drag and create sparks.
• Maintain tires to avoid a flat tires which make sparks.
• Keep your vehicle from driving on dry grass or bushes. Hot pipes can ignite dry grass and wayward weeds.
• Shooting: Make sure you are shooting safely in the Spring Mountains: Shooting in the Spring Mountains
Wildfires leave major human safety and environment problems to deal with. With the help of experts and crews the threats were identified, recovery work has been done, and will continue to help the Harris Spriungs area to recover. With your help to limit wildfires we can protect the beloved Spring Mountains and the Las Vegas communities and environments below.