I decided to wait on a blog-worthy chain of events to share for my next post, and, on the day of the CLM reminder email, a field day like no other provided the perfect opportunity to share an experience with wildland fire, teamwork and communication.
After an amazing Tahoe 4th of July and Yosemite weekend with my family, I was ready to kick off the week with a multi-day fieldwork stint of seed scouting and collection. Our mentor whipped out the topo maps and directed us on areas of interest to cover over the next two days. We planned to scout a large swath of BLM land north of Reno in the Virginia Mountains for populations of Psuedoroegneria spicata, Leymus cinerus, Tetradymia glabrata, and Purshia tridentata, with an end goal of camping on the western shores of Pyramid Lake. After reading about the current Red Flag Warning (conditions ideal for wildland fire combustion and rapid spread) in the region, my team and I ran a few concerns by our mentor. Using a live updated ArcGIS Online map to review the current fires in the region, we agreed that the benefits of a scouting/collection trip into Long Valley outweighed the chance risk of running into an active fire. This was the start to an exceptionally long day.
We reached Long Valley in the Virginia Mountains just east of Doyle, CA by mid-morning and called Minden Dispatch to inform them of our field plans and location. In the hope of finding collectible populations, we searched flats, hillsides and swales for signs of our priority species. Unfortunately, most of the target populations we found were outside of the optimal collecting period. We continued making notes and collecting baseline data on the status of the local populations as we made our way to the northwest corner of Pyramid Lake. Pyramid Lake is a diamond in the rough, almost unbelievable at first sight. The vast blue lake covers a surface area larger than Lake Tahoe and in the middle of a mixed Sagebrush-Salt Desert Shrub system! Fascinated by the pyramid-esque rock formations jutting out of the vibrant water, we proceeded south along the western shore of the lake until encountering road-closed highway blockers fencing off a washed out drainage line. The unusually precipitous winter gouged out a large section of road and flow infrastructure across a stream leaving the only south-bound road impassable. We decided to backtrack for cellular service to contact our mentor with an update.
Driving back north and west, slightly frustrated with the washout, one of my co-interns excitedly yells out “Super-Scooper!!” and points out over Pyramid Lake. A medium sized aircraft lined up with the water surface and dipped down to fill its 1600 gallon holding tank with water, all without reducing speed or landing! Three of these amphibious firefighting aircraft, recently deployed by regional fire offices, continued to make water runs right over our heads. It took a second for the “WOW this is so cool” excitement to pass before we realized where they were heading. After filling up on water the planes headed west over some nearby hills towards a new column of smoke, directly in line with the areas we surveyed earlier that morning.
We returned to the far edge of Long Valley, overlooking a full playa lake, to gape at the growing fire less than 10 miles away. We scrambled to turn on our handheld radios as the updates came in from the local station flooded with activity. We heard the road names Hacks Cross, Turtle Mountain and Fort Sage OHV Area, the exact route we used to enter from the 395 freeway. Super Scooper after Super Scooper arrived to dump thousands of gallons onto the fire lines to prevent the fire from reaching Doyle. With the nervous energy rising among the team, we called our mentor to inform him of the situation. We pulled out our land cover maps to find an alternate safe route back to 395. We called in to Minden Dispatch to update them on our position. We contacted the fire lead for our field office, who thought our planned route out of the area safe and gave us the go ahead. After an hour of phone tag, map routing, and fire gazing, we started on a long drive north out of Long Valley, around Honey Lake almost to Susanville, and back south on 395 to Carson City.
This day taught me about the risk of unanticipated circumstances creating potentially dangerous situations in the field. The washout and wildfire provided us an opportunity to practice effective communication and teamwork under stress and adrenaline. I learned that following safety protocol does make a difference in the field. However, moving forward, I’m keeping my eyes on the horizon.
Carson City District Office – NV BLM