Coming at a cost: This season’s powerful winter paints success for Reno-Tahoe tourism — but danger for wildfire season
March 25, 2019
RENO, Nev. — Miracle March, please stay your hand.
The impacts of the unending winter blitz that left some parts of the Sierra buried under more than 20 feet of snow in February alone will be felt for months to come. There was no need for a repeat of last year's "Miracle March," when the region received the majority of snowfall for the 2017-2018 season.
Record winters such as the winter of 2016-2017 — the wettest winter ever recorded in the Sierra — and this year help regional tourism agencies market Greater Reno-Tahoe year-round.
The region's prestigious ski resorts enjoy the added cachet of skiers and snowboarders sharing stories of carving up waist-deep powder, and the massive snowpack and ensuing spring runoff sets the region up for strong summer and fall seasons.
But all that snow comes at a high cost.
The ski industry and marketing recreation
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From heli-skiing in the Ruby Mountains near Elko to snowboarding down Ski Run Boulevard in Incline Village, strong winters such as this give regional marketers plenty to discuss when they visit colleagues in key fly-in and drive-in markets.
Bethany Drysdale, chief communications officer for TravelNevada/Nevada Division of Tourism, says her team recently shared the region's plentiful power on a sales trip to Denver. Although there's no shortage of snow in the Rockies, people often take ski vacations to other destinations, Drysdale says.
"We don't hang our hat on the ski season or the ski resorts because that's only one corner of state, but it gives us one more thing to talk about," she says. "We talk about our monumental winter while our sales team talks to travel agents and tour operators. The resorts are only open for another couple months, but people in those destinations can make the decision to travel here."
Drysdale says that prior to the winter of 2016-2017, TravelNevada actually curtailed its winter marketing efforts because of the preceding long-term drought.
"We no longer wanted to show snowy landscapes when we couldn't deliver on that, so we moved away from a snow focus," she says. "Mother Nature is just too unpredictable to put our eggs in that basket, but years like this one certainly give us something to talk about."
An ad showing heli-skiing in the Ruby Mountains currently is TravelNevada's most-clicked digital advertisement, Drysdale notes.
The record winter already is paying dividends in terms of visitors to Greater Reno-Tahoe. Phil DeLone, president and chief executive officer of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitor's Authority, says in January there were 355,000 visitors to Reno-Sparks, an increase of 4.4 percent from year-earlier figures and the best January in the last decade.
The return of Safari Club International after a five-year absence brought an additional 15,000 visitors to the region, but that's a small percentage of the region's overall visitor count for the month. February numbers likely will be skewed downward due to nightmarish travel conditions visitors faced, DeLone notes.
Many regional ski resorts, including Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe, Heavenly Mountain and Squaw Valley, have announced they will extend their traditional ski seasons, which typically wrap up in April as spring weather offers other recreational options — with Squaw Valley going as far as to stay open after the Fourth of July. The longer season could potentially offset lower visitor counts in February.
Additionally, when all that snow melts, Lake Tahoe is expected to be at or near its natural rim all summer, and other lakes and rivers will be full, providing robust recreational opportunities deep into the fall.
"Overall, the resorts in the region are happy to see a good snowfall," DeLone says. "It's beneficial for our geography and the climate and helps prevent or curtail the risk of drought in the summer."
A potentially dangerous wildfire season ahead
Although drought won't be a factor this year, fire certainly will be. Wet winters greatly benefit longer-burning fuels such as timber, which now have full moisture content, but they also spur explosive growth of finer fuels such as cheatgrass.
When excessive cheatgrass burns into medium fuels like sagebrush, it creates wildfires that burn larger and faster, says Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District Fire Chief Charles Moore.
"During the springtime green-up period, consistent moisture fuels finer-fuels growth, and come June and July, those fuels cure about same time we start getting lightning storms," Moore says. "That is usually a recipe for more wildfires and fires that spread with more intensity."
Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District covers most of unincorporated Washoe County (including Pyramid Lake) except for North Lake Tahoe and the cities of Reno and Sparks. TMFPD has been unusually busy the past few years.
"The wildfire season that follows a very wet year correlates to a very active fire season," Moore says.
Here's proof: The wildfire season of 2016 saw just 78,898 acres burn. The following wildfire season, after the record winter of 2016-2017, a total of 358,029 acres burned in the TMFPD's coverage area. Notable fires were the Long Valley Fire, which burned more than 83,000 acres in Northern California and Nevada, and the Earthstone Fire, which burned nearly 27,000 acres in the hills above East Sparks.
Last year, meanwhile, saw a return to normalcy with just 52,871 acres burned.
While much of the TMFPD's protection area is in unoccupied areas, it does have to consider heavily populated forested areas such as Galena, Montreux and Arrowcreek. These areas are similar to forested communities in Northern California such as Redding and Paradise, where wildfires destroyed thousands of structures and claimed more than 90 lives last year.
Wind, not drought or fuel type, played the biggest role in those fire events, Moore notes.
There are many measures Northern Nevada businesses and homeowners can take to mitigate fire risk.
"The threat of structure loss is there all the time," Moore says. "The single-most thing we preach is defensible space and making sure there is no trail of combustibles from outside to the home (or business).
"Living with fire means we have the chance of experience fire at any time," he adds. "Even though it may be very wet, sagebrush will burn at any time. We need to be aware of fire throughout the calendar year, but particularly in the summer. The chance of having a fire is year-round. Not so much this year because of the snowpack, but the risk of fire is there whether we have a drought year or wet year.
"We are going to be fighting fires no matter what Mother Nature does to us during the winter."
Rob Sabo a Reno-based freelance writer and former reporter for the Northern Nevada Business View.