The blaze that until late this week crept along rugged rims of Mount Charleston grew to as many as 9,000 acres Friday and swept into Kyle Canyon, threatening hundreds of homes.
The Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources reported that 400 structures were in danger as the uncontained, wind-fueled wildfire moved north and south along a ridge overlooking the canyon and devoured dry vegetation atop the mountain range, one of Las Vegas’ most popular and temperate destinations.
Police and fire officials ordered more than 500 residents to evacuate as hundreds of firefighters — most of whom specialize in attacking aggressive, wind-whipped blazes in steep, rocky terrain — made their way up the mountain.
Officials made plans Friday to turn Centennial High School in the northern part of Las Vegas Valley into the incident command post for the fire in a move intended to keep resources close to the threatened structures in Kyle Canyon. An estimated 700 to 800 firefighters will encamp at the school.
Work will begin, and firefighters will start arriving this afternoon and continue through Sunday, said Butch Smith, a facility unit leader of the National Incident Management Team. Tents will be set up on the soccer field, and personnel will use some of the classrooms for logistics and planning operations.
It was unclear Friday exactly how many acres the blaze had torched, but the figure grew from 2,000 to as many as 9,000 acres by midafternoon. The glow of flames was visible from North Las Vegas. Suzanne Shelp, Spring Mountains National Recreation Area trails program manager, said the fire had scorched 9,030 acres.
Heavy smoke masking the mountain range made it difficult to accurately gauge the size of the fire, said JoAnn Kittrell, public information officer for the Department of Conservation.
FIREFIGHTERS GUARD NEIGHBORHOODS
Nevada Division of Forestry crews have been stationed in the neighborhoods of Cathedral, Old Town, Rainbow and Echo in Kyle Canyon and in Lee Canyon, where the Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort is located, Kittrell said.
In an effort to suppress the blaze Friday, three tankers unloaded retardant, and a helicopter scooped buckets of water from the ski resort’s reservoir, typically reserved for manufacturing snow.
For precautionary reasons, retardant was also spread across the mountain range from Charleston Peak to Griffith Peak.
Days after record-breaking temperatures scorched Southern Nevada, winds kicked up, and lightning struck a remote region near Carpenter Canyon on Monday. Residents in Trout, Kyle and Lee canyons were evacuated.
State routes 156 and 157 — the primary routes to Mount Charleston — were closed at U.S. Highway 95.
As of Friday evening, there were no reports of damage to buildings or injuries related to the fire, according to Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Hillerie Patton.
On the western side of the mountain range, Pahrump Valley Fire Chief Scott Lewis said his town was turning into a camp for emergency responders.
Lewis warned that weather conditions could turn an already treacherous blaze into a devastating inferno.
The National Weather Service confirmed that 20 to 30 mph winds were expected to whip across Mount Charleston Friday night, with gusts up to 40 mph expected by morning.
FIGHTING FIRE IN CARPENTER CANYON
Although the incident command post is moving from Pahrump to Centennial High School, a camp for firefighters will remain in Pahrump, closer to the western part of the fire, officials said.
About 300 firefighters were on the front line of the fire, and more than 100 firefighters were more mobile Friday, shifting in and out of the various posts as resources are assigned to high-priority areas.
The posts might expand as the network of firefighters evolves from a “Type II” team, which has limited resources, into a “Type I” team with more extensive training and access to additional resources.
Incident Commander Trainee Tony DeMasters, who oversees the Pahrump operations, expressed some concern over resources in the western region of the United States.
Massive wildfires are burning in Colorado, Arizona and Northern Nevada.
DeMasters, based in Boise, Idaho, said he and his crew are requesting more resources. But wildfire workers and machinery — from engines to helicopters and tankers — are in high demand right now.
“Everything wants to burn,” he said, noting the hot weather, high winds and dry plants are forcing crews to constantly re-evaluate their tactics.
“We’re looking at it on a daily, hourly basis.”
Both DeMasters and Jay Nichols, spokesman for Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, said no estimate could be put on when the fire would be contained.
“I don’t know,” said Nichols, emphasizing that weather conditions aren’t the only trouble.
Steep terrain is making access difficult.
“We have no estimated containment date at this time,” Nichols said.
RESIDENTS CAUGHT OFF GUARD
Representatives of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Gov. Brian Sandoval said the leaders are closely monitoring the situation.
So are residents, who were caught off guard not only by the speed at which the fire spread, but how quickly emergency crews were to close roads leading to the mountain.
Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani’s husband, Gary Gray, built their vacation home at Echo 33 years ago. When they left Thursday night, tankers were flying overhead and 200-foot high flames threatened residents, she said.
The couple have no indication of when they can check on their home.
“We took the dog and family albums and my husband’s tools,” she said. “My truck is still up there.”
Jim Stanton, a camp host at the Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort, said Nevada Highway Patrol troopers stopped him at U.S. 95. He had hoped to retrieve a fifth-wheel RV he typically leaves on the mountain.
“Now I wish I could get it down,” he said.
Most folks were denied access to the mountain, including a driver for Western Linen Services.
“I guess there’s no business at the restaurant?” the driver asked quizzically. “This is crazy.”
Dan Johnston, a retired police officer from Niagara County Sheriff’s Office in New York, delivered bottled water to weary officers at the staging area.
Johnston drove his custom Blue Knights Motorcycle Club car and wore his club’s vest. The Blue Knights are an international fraternity for active and retired officers who enjoy motorcycles. The Las Vegas chapter has about 35 members.
“I just wanted to come out and take care of these guys,” said Johnston, who lives near Kyle Canyon Road.
They need it.
Lt. David Gordon of the Metropolitan Police Department said at least 18 day-shift officers monitoring the fire were expected to be relieved by night-shift officers.
EXTREME FIRE BEHAVIOR
The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning Friday afternoon for the Spring Mountains.
According to meteorologist Ryan Metzger, the warning was in effect from 1 to 8 p.m. Friday .
“We’re expecting gusty winds that might conflict with (firefighters’) ability to fight the fire,” he said.
The combination of wind gusts, low relative humidity and dry fuel can create conditions favorable for “extreme fire behavior,” according to the weather service’s warning.
Clark County issued an alert Thursday for unhealthy air quality conditions caused by smoke from local and regional wildfires, as well as local fireworks.
The alert is in effect through Sunday and might be extended.
Air quality specialist Russell Roberts said the pollutant levels are not above any standards, but they are high.
“It’s a bad time with air quality because it’s ozone season as well,” Roberts said. “It’s not a good time to be breathing outdoors.”
The American Red Cross set up shelters in Pahrump at Hafen Elementary School, 7120 Hafen Ranch Road, and in Las Vegas at Bilbray Elementary School, 9370 Brent Lane.
Review-Journal reporters Mike Blasky, Sean Whaley, Ben Botkin and Matt Ward contributed to this report.