Dry grasses among risks as agencies prohibit fires on public lands

Starting Saturday, fires will be prohibited on almost all 6 million acres of public land surrounding Las Vegas because of a high potential for wildfires this summer.

The increased danger is the result of a wet winter, said representatives from all five government agencies overseeing the lands. More precipitation enables more grass and brush to grow. The water quickly disappears, and the vegetation dries by summer, creating fast-burning fuel.

"I've seen fires move faster than you can drive," said Chris Delaney, assistant fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management Southern Nevada Division.

The bureau mainly oversees Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and land around Mount Charleston, 3.7 million acres in all. Last summer, the area didn't have much grass to worry about, he said. More than 928,000 acres burned in the summer of 2005, the last time there was this much fuel around.

"The potential is there to keep us real busy," Delaney said.

That wasn't the case last year, when just 731 acres burned, including 600 acres in the July 1 fire near Moapa and 20 acres the same day on Mount Charleston. Delaney said the other 101 fires averaged less than an acre apiece.

Delaney said lightning causes half of the fires on bureau land, and humans start the other half. The lower the public lands, the greater the part that humans play in wildfires.

For that reason, about 90 percent of the fires under Clark County's jurisdiction are man-made, Assistant Fire Chief Mike Johnson said.

That's not the case for the 316,000 acres of Mount Charleston. Most of the mountain's fires are the result of lightning strikes . Ray Johnson, fire prevention officer for the U.S. Forest Service , said an 80-acre fire occurred last weekend. The good news is that the fires don't spread as quickly because it stays cooler and more humid on Mount Charleston.

Far below Mount Charleston, Lake Mead's level is expected to increase a foot a week this summer, Andrew Munoz of the National Park Service said. The service is allowing campfires along the shoreline, but fires have to be 100 feet from any vegetation, which will be especially combustible. The rising shoreline will decrease area available for fires.

The water filling Lake Mead comes from the western Rockies, which are at 150 percent their usual snowpack and still seeing snow, he said.

"We're not out of the woods for drought though," he said. "The lake is still low. We'd need three to four winters like the last."

He said the lake is 43 percent of its capacity .

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@review journal.com or 702-383-0279.