On Saturday evening, May 17, the U. S. Forest Service was informed that there was an uncontrolled fire in the Hunter Falls area west of Reno, Nevada. Because it was dark and the area was difficult to reach by vehicle, the Forest Service elected to wait until dawn to attack the fire. On Sunday noon a ground crew still had not reached the fire and winds had picked up. The fire was rapidly growing sending smoke towering over Reno, Nevada.
According to an anonymous source it was 2:15 PM on Sunday before an air attack on the fire would begin and by that time the U.S. Forest Service had known about the fire for at least 15 hours. The lack of rapid response occurred on an active fire where high winds from an incoming front were predicted by the National Weather Service.
When asked about the delay in air support, a spokesperson for the U. S. Forest Service had said that air support was not available. According to the KRNV News in Reno, the Washoe County Sheriff”s Department, helicopter, capable of making water drops on a fire, was available. Another source said that two air tankers from California were in process of being repositioned Sunday morning to the Stead airport north of Reno to attack the fire.
Apparently those resources were waved off by the Forest Service on Sunday morning. According to the source, the rationale for waving off the air tankers was to avoid dropping fire-retardant in the local watershed. There was no apparent reason for not using water drops from the Washoe County Sheriff’s Department’s helicopter.
The choice to send in ground crews, rather than air support, is also questionable. In 1994, a fire on Storm King Mountain fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado killed 14 firefighters when high winds kicked up and trapped them.
Colder temperatures and precipitation over the next few days allowed the fire to be controlled; however, there are many questions that need to be answered regarding the decision to wave off air support considering the weather forecast and the difficult terrain of the Hunter Falls areas.