Fanned by increasing winds, a burgeoning wildfire began descending the east side of Mount Charleston on Thursday, prompting mandatory evacuations and sending cars full of residents and their possessions down the mountain.
The building winds made it difficult to fight the blaze encroaching Kyle Canyon, Las Vegas police spokesman Bill Cassell said. At 9:45 p.m., the fire was climbing the west side of Cathedral Rock.
The wildfire kindled by lightning Monday morning in Carpenter Canyon, on the west side of the Spring Mountains, has grown beyond the 1,250 acres reported before 1 p.m. Thursday and has crested the peak of Mount Charleston, officials said.
Multiple sources told the Review-Journal that the fire was descending the ridge between Griffith and Mount Charleston peaks. The Bureau of Land Management said late Thursday no reports of structure damage had been made. Officials did not update information about the size of the fire or exact location throughout the night.
Trout Canyon, near the original source of the fire, also was evacuated, and a shelter was set up in Pahrump for the residents of the 21 houses there.
Officials began evacuating Lee Canyon, which neighbors Kyle Canyon, late Thursday night.
“They told me to get off the mountain,” Rose Meranto, a resident of Old Town in Kyle Canyon said. “They just said don’t waste time and go. So I got my kitty cats and my son’s cats and I moved.”
About 500 people were affected by Thursday’s escalating rounds of evacuations. At 11 p.m., Cassell said officers were returning to the homes of those who were reluctant to leave and requiring them to do so as a matter of public safety.
“Mount Charleston is closed,” Cassell said.
It’s not known when evacuees will be allowed to return to their homes. It’s common in a blaze like this for evacuations to last seven to 14 days, Cassell said fire officials told him.
State routes 156 and 157 at U.S. Highway 95 leading to Mount Charleston have been closed, along with Trout Canyon Road at state Route 160.
No one is being permitted up the mountain.
“The fire reached the trigger point; burning embers are shooting out,” Cassell said.
A Review-Journal reporter in the Rainbow community on Mount Charleston witnessed flames twice as tall as the pine trees overlooking Kyle Canyon before they were obscured by smoke.
Sue Mowbray, a tourist staying in a Rainbow cabin with her children, said: “The sky was just bright red. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
As Mowbray went down the mountain, she noticed people still at campsites. She left on her own at 5 p.m., before she was told about the evacuation.
CLEARING THE MOUNTAIN
Police went door to door in four six-man teams to clear to warn residents and clear the mountain. They placed stickers on the doors of homes they visited and kept a tally of residents who refused to leave.
Cassell said the evacuation was difficult because of heavy traffic during the holiday and having just one road in and out of the area.
Larry Sheeler, who has lived on the mountain for 30 years, left Thursday when the fire was two-and-a-half miles from his house. He grabbed a trailer full of the things that mean the most to him: His guns, paintings and a pregnant Queensland Heeler who was about to give birth.
He also helped a neighbor’s three young children reach the evacuation staging area so they could meet with their father.
The American Red Cross began mobilizing volunteers and shelter managers after fire officials issued a voluntary evacuation in Trout Canyon Thursday morning, which was made mandatory by mid-afternoon. The organization set up shelters in Las Vegas and Pahrump, according to Red Cross spokesman Lloyd Ziel.
Don and Phyllis Eckert were the first evacuees to arrive at the Red Cross shelter set up at Bilbray Elementary School, near Fort Apache Road and U.S. 95.
They planned to stay the night at a hotel in the valley but thought they would stop by the shelter to see what they could find out about the fire.
“We came down here to get some information, but there’s none to be had,” Don said.
They’ve lived on the mountain full-time since June of last year, but their cabin was built by Don’s father in 1957 so they’ve seen their share of evacuations.
Don said the air was clear in Kyle Canyon on Thursday morning, but by about 4 p.m. they could see trees exploding into flames on the distant ridge line.
Ash began falling from the sky “like snowflakes,” he said.
A Las Vegas police officer came by their cabin in Kyle Canyon about 5 p.m. and told them to leave, so they packed up their two cats and did so.
Don said he was impressed by the evacuation effort. “Metro, they don’t mess around. They get ahead of the game.”
Red Cross employee Deb Lancaster said about seven volunteers, including a nurse, were at Pahrump’s Hafen Elementary School to aid Trout Canyon evacuees should they need a place to stay.
“We’ll take care of them, make sure they get fed and have a place for them to sleep,” she said.
A half-dozen cots for would-be evacuees were set up in Hafen’s gymnasium. As of 9 p.m., however, no evacuees had arrived at the school.
Firefighters and Forest Service workers also worked to clear the woods of hikers.
Las Vegas resident Cindy Evans had taken her two daughters, one of their friends and an adult son onto the Cathedral Rock Trail to escape the valley heat. She knew there was a fire, but thought it was on the far side of the mountain. The blaze was close enough for her to snap some pictures of flames overtaking a nearby peak. They made it back to a parking lot safely, but not before Evans’ 10-year-old daughter became frightened.
“She already was aware of the firefighters that just died in Arizona,” Evans said. “She had asked me how that happened. When I was explaining it to her and then when she saw this, I think it freaked her out.”
DIFFICULT CONDITIONS A HINDRANCE
Weather and conditions generated by the fire hindered suppression efforts on both sides of the mountain.
Clouds formed from the smoke might be contributing to the spreading blaze.
Fires can create a type of cloud known as a pyrocumulonimbus, according to the National Weather Service. These vertical columns can produce thunder and lightning.
That’s likely what caused the strikes that helped the wildfire expand Thursday, weather service meteorologist Chris Stumpf said.
A rainstorm moved over Mount Charleston and dropped about one-hundredth of an inch, Stumpf said, but dry conditions evaporated the droplets before they could hit the ground. That process produces wind, which also may have fanned the flames.
The forecast for today isn’t promising.
Wind speeds are expected to continue to pick up, with gusts of 35 mph in the higher elevations. Wind speeds in the Las Vegas Valley may reach 25 mph.
A thunderstorm leaving the Pahrump Valley approached the western edge of the mountains Thursday night.
Stronger winds could help clear the smoky haze that blanketed the valley on Thursday, Stumpf said.
There’s a 20 percent chance of rain in the mountains through Sunday, Stumpf said, which could assist with extinguishing the fire.
“If it’s stationary over one area for long enough, the storm can add its own moisture to the lower levels and you might be able to eventually get precipitation to reach the ground,” Stumpf said.
containment on the ridge a key
Teams of firefighters from the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service are working to contain the flames, said BLM spokeswoman Hillerie Patton.
“They’re not doing mapping or acreage yet,” Patton said. “They’re just trying to make sure everyone is safe.”
Patton said that the firefighters are focused on trying to keep the fire on the ridge.
There are about 150 people fighting the fire, along with five engines and a hotshot crew. Two helicopters and a single-engine air tanker are dropping water and retardant on the burning landscape, Patton said.
The Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort has a 10 million-gallon reservoir that helicopters have been using for fire relief since 10 a.m. Thursday.
The resort put a notice on Facebook that they were pre-emptively suspending operations until further notice due to the evacuation.
Because of the smoke, people who have breathing problems are urged to take precautions and stay indoors.
Clark County air quality officials posted an alert for unhealthy air quality in portions of Clark County because of fires on Mount Charleston and other regional fires, and other smoke generated from fireworks.
Other closures include Griffith Peak Trail, South Loop Trail and North Loop Trail at its Trail Canyon junction and all access to Charleston Peak.
This isn’t the first fire to scorch sections of Kyle Canyon in recent years.
In 2010, the Cathedral Fire scorched 20 acres and stopped 50 feet short of Rainbow subdivision.
Firefighters have thinned sections of forest in the Spring Mountains in recent years to slow the spread of flames in the event of wildfire.
In June 2008, authorities evacuated some residents after a small plane crashed and killed four Northern Californians. The crash sparked a two-day blaze that burned 12 acres.
For more information about the ongoing fire, the public can call the BLM at 702-515-5105.
Pahrump Valley Times writers Matt Ward and Kelsey Givens contributed to this report. Review-Journal reporters Colton Lochhead and Adam Kealoha Causey contributed to this report. Contact Rochel Leah Goldblatt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0381.