Four photos depict land reclamation efforts on an area impacted by wildfire.

The Great Basin Restoration Initiative involved seeding, planting, construction of fences, and treatment of noxious weeds on more than 500,000 acres affected by wildfire. (BLM)

The Sadler Fire:
The 1999 Fire Season and the Great Basin Restoration Initiative

By Helen Hankins with Tom Warren

In 1999, from July 19 through late August, a number of cold fronts from the Pacific Northwest brought lightning storms into the Great Basin that caused a series of fires in a 265-square-mile area in northeastern Nevada.  The fires burned more than 700,000 acres, primarily within grass-sagebrush and pinyon-juniper cover types.  At the peak of activity, approximately 56 percent of the nation’s federal firefighting resources were assigned to the Nevada fires, including 4,827 personnel (firefighters and administrative), at least 132 Type I/II crews, 48 aircraft, 286 engines, and 232 other pieces of equipment (bulldozers, graders, water trucks, etc.).  At least 6 federal agencies and 23 state and local fire departments were involved.  An area command was placed in Winnemucca to allocate resources statewide.  Total suppression costs were estimated to be nearly $18 million for July and August alone.

Though more than a decade has passed, the intense 1999 fire season in northeastern Nevada seems like yesterday.  The largest fire on record for the BLM in Elko and Eureka Counties—the Sadler Fire—consumed more than 199,000 acres in 6 hot days in early August of that year.  During this single event, nearly four times the acreage burned than we had previously expected in an entire fire season!  The Sadler Fire will be remembered for the burn-over experience of six firefighters and for the standing down of the Type I incident management team associated with the fire.  It could have been the largest fire that summer—but it was only one of more than 100 such events throughout the Great Basin.

Late in the summer, the BLM began to take stock of the extensive resource damage and to plan for emergency stabilization and restoration of the nearly 500,000 acres affected by wildfire.  We analyzed losses of critical livestock forage and sage-grouse habitat and the destruction of rangelands used by wild horses.  We also faced an agitated and fractious public—many of them relied on the public lands for their livelihoods and many were outspoken and critical in public meetings.  As the Elko district manager, I requested the assistance of the Department of the Interior’s Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation (BAER) Team to develop 25 stabilization and restoration plans for much of the burned area.  (As we worked on our restoration plans, wildfires were still burning.)

The team and the Elko staff worked hard to engage a broad cross section of the public, including ranchers; miners; interest groups; youth groups; public officials at the local, state, and federal levels; and other individuals.  It took many, often contentious, community meetings to reach agreement on how best to restore the land and minimize the economic impact to ranchers and others who depended on the land.  After preparing these plans simultaneously, I remember sitting in the closeout meeting with the BAER Team and answering Team Leader Tom Gavin’s query:  “How in the world are you going to get this unprecedented amount of work done in the 2-year window during which most of the actions need to occur?”  My response was, “Like we do all large projects—one bite at a time.”  I had seen the Elko staff do amazing levels of work and I had faith that they could do this as well.

We set up a modified and smaller version of an incident management team to handle the short- and long-term stabilization and restoration work.  Fire staff, volunteers, range permittees, and others stepped up.  Our focus, commitment, flexibility, persistence, and resilience were key factors in getting the job done on time and within estimated costs.  All key planned actions were accomplished during the first year.  The working relationships we had before 1999 and the bonds we built during that fire season enabled us and all of our partners to meet the challenge.

We exceeded all expectations—we seeded over 340,000 acres, planted 40,000 bitterbrush seedlings, constructed 250 miles of new fence, repaired more than 500 miles of fence and 370 miles of road, treated 1,400 acres of noxious weeds, and installed 3,700 straw bales and more than 45,000 linear feet of straw wattles.  We did what we told the public we would do!

The 1999 fire season and the extraordinary level of restoration that followed influenced my perspective about landscape-level vegetation management.  The experiences I had in Nevada at that time were not unique to me or to the Elko District.  Our combined set of experiences and the leadership of our then state director Bob Abbey were the foundational blocks of the Great Basin Restoration Initiative.  We all worked at the strategic level to develop a landscape-level approach to ecosystem management across jurisdictional boundaries.

Helen Hankins began her BLM career more than 40 years ago as a work-study student in the Albuquerque District.  She has worked as a geologist and manager in Colorado, Alaska, Nevada, Arizona, and the Washington Office.  She is currently the BLM state director in Colorado.

Tom Warren is currently the assistant district manager for operations in the Elko District.  Prior to that, he was the rehabilitation manager and a rangeland management specialist in Elko.  Tom began his BLM career in 1983 in the Ely District.