Above: Map of the Little Valley Fire at 9:23 p.m. PDT October 14, 2016.
On February 15 two reports were released about the prescribed fire that escaped, burned 2,291 acres, and destroyed 23 homes northwest of Carson City, Nevada on October 14, 2016. The first report about what became the Little Valley Fire included the results of a months-long independent investigation by the Reno Gazette-Journal (RGJ). The other, released a few hours later, was the product of the official investigation requested by the Nevada Division of Forestry (NDF), the agency responsible for conducting the prescribed fire.
Hours before the fire escaped, all eleven firefighters that had been mopping up the prescribed fire left the project and returned to their stations between 1:30 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. on October 13, 2016. During that day there were a number of smokes that received the attention of the firefighters. During the last two hours before the seven-person helitack crew departed they noticed the wind increasing — trees were blowing down and branches were falling.
The RGJ reported on the reason the firefighters were ordered to leave the burn site.
Gene Phillips, NDF forest health specialist and burn boss for the Little Valley Burn, made the decision to pull crews from the burn site after discussing the high wind forecasts for the evening with a burn boss trainee, according to the review.
The decision not to staff the site on the evening of Oct. 13 was made, according to NDF, “based on the limited amount of heat near the control lines, success of the current mop-up effort, and the risk to firefighters working in timber during high winds.”
At 5:38 p.m. the Little Valley weather station recorded sustained winds out of the west at 15 mph with a maximum gust of 39 mph. By 12:38 a.m. on October 14, about the time the fire escaped, the wind was at 19 mph with gusts up to 87 mph. The relative humidity was 32 percent.
A Red Flag Warning for gusty winds and low humidity was in effect from the morning of October 11 through 5 p.m. on October 14. Strong winds persisted until mid-day on October 17.
The NIMO team concluded that the fire escaped when embers from a burning stump hole were blown 34 feet and crossed the fireline at a corner, or “dog leg” in the fire perimeter.
According to the RGJ there was confusion in initially responding to the fire after it escaped at around 12:38 a.m. on October 14:
Response to the fire was delayed, affecting how fast it could be contained: A call at 1:23 a.m. about smoke at the burn site was later dismissed as “unfounded,” causing a TMFPD [Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District] fire engine to return to the station three minutes after it left. After a second call about smoke at the burn site, it took TMFPD more than an hour to get to the site after crews were dispatched, according to 911 transcripts.
The NDF’s report was written by the U.S. Forest Service’s Phoenix National Incident Management Organization (NIMO), a team that usually manages fires and other incidents that are often of longer duration than a typical wildfire. The team was supplemented with a Fire Behavior Analyst, a GIS/Fire Behavior Analyst, a Public Information Officer, a Fire Investigator, and others for a total of 10 personnel that were listed in the report.