Lightning strike sparked massive wildfire closing road to Burning Man festival

The fire is not expected to be contained until Sept. 6.

ByABC News
August 31, 2017, 4:20 AM

— -- A lightning strike Sunday caused a massive fire that forced officials to close the main artery between Reno, Nevada, and the Burning Man festival for several hours before reopening it this morning.

"The wildfire came up on the side of the road and there was a lot of smoke and wind and they were getting really close to the roadway and it was too dangerous for our drivers," State Trooper Dan Gordon of the Nevada Highway Patrol-Northern Command West said yesterday. "With the winds we’re at the beck and call of Mother Nature for stuff like that."

The wildfire, dubbed the Tohakum 2 Fire, charred around 30,000 acres and was one of five lightning strike fires that the Gerlach Fire Department and national incident management teams were still battling today.

"Two days ago a lightning strike in the Tohakum Peak area grew and it jumped the road yesterday," Rich Walsh, a Gerlach fire protection officer, told ABC News.

The blaze started 70 miles northeast of Reno and was fueled by lush grass, then intensified by strong winds and dry air conditions.

The peril from the flames led Nevada State Highway Patrol officials, around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, to shutdown the two-lane State Highway 447 in both directions between the communities of Nixon and Empire in Nevada.

Officials decided to reopen Route 447 at around 8 a.m. this morning.

Burning Man, a nine-day arts and music festival held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, attracts tens of thousands of people annually, according to its website.

The location where Burning Man is held in is managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. The festival began on Aug. 27 and continues until Sept. 4.

The event's annual draw dwarfs the average daily count of 380 vehicles that use the 75-mile, mostly paved state and county road.

Meg Ragonese, spokeswoman for the state's Department of Transportation, said there would be 20-30 minute road closures through the day to permit power companies to access and assess the damage caused by the fire.

She added that the alternative is a "six-hour detour" to reach Burning Man, by taking a county road that exits off Interstate 80 from the tip of California.

Though the fire threatened some structures in the rural region, Rich said, "I don't believe we had any loss."

He also said that containing the blaze, which on Tuesday consumed 7,000 acres of land, mostly run by the Bureau of Land Management, is going to take several days.

Initially, the bureau was concerned about the fire's potential to affect the festival.

"Burning Man is a major safety concern on Nevada State Route 447 [and] there is potential for the fire to progress toward the Burning Man event area," the Bureau of Land Management said Thursday. "Structures are threatened, with the potential for the community of Empire to be threatened in the future."

But today, they were confident that the distance between the festival and the fire would remain great. Gerlach Fire Department's Rich played that down this morning.

"It will not threaten the the festival, because it's 60 miles away," Rich said.

Except for some Burning Man attendees inconvenienced Tuesday night because they had to change routes, the festival appears to have been uninterrupted.