Nevada Hopes to Become Model for Combating Western Wildfires

"… I'm proud to see Nevadans working together to develop plans and initiatives while advocating for the funding and resources we need to prevent and recover from wild and rangeland fires.”

by John Sadler, Las Vegas Sun / November 13, 2019
Traffic passes Aug. 6, 2017 on U.S. Interstate 80 in Sparks, Nevada, after voluntary evacuation orders were lifted due to a wildfire that threatened nearly two dozen homes. The fire that consumed more than 4 square miles of mostly sage brush and cheast grass burned dangerously close to the Northern Nevada Medical Center visible behind the Sinclair sign on the east edge of Sparks. AP/Scott Sonner

(TNS) — Nevada’s political leadership is continuing to develop measures to combat the increasing threats posed by wildfires across the American West and in the Silver State.

A committee of state lawmakers will begin meeting next year to discuss the effect wildfires have on Nevada, and to develop ideas for legislation to introduce in the 2021 session.

In the meantime, U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., continues to draw attention to the issue. She hosted a summit in August in Reno to discuss strategies to fight wildfires, and she continues to seek out additional federal funding to help in the aftermath of the blazes.

She said she thought Nevada could be a leader in fire prevention efforts.

"I believe that what we do here in Nevada can become a model across the West to increase cooperation and coordination on wildfires," Cortez Masto said. "Gov. Steve Sisolak and our Legislature made terrific progress in our last legislative session by creating an interim committee dedicated to studying wildfire reduction and early responses to fires."

What is the committee?

The Committee to Conduct an Interim Study Concerning Wildfires is made up of three state senators — Chris Brooks, D-Las Vegas, Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, and Melanie Scheible, D-Las Vegas, — and three assemblywomen — Sarah Peters, D-Reno, Robin Titus, R-Wellington, and Heidi Swank, D-Henderson. Swank is the committee chair.

The committee, which was created by the 2019 Legislature, "must consider" wildfire fuel reduction, early responses and the economic impact of wildfires. It will meet four times in 2020.

The goal, Swank said, was to produce legislative recommendations for the 2021 session to fight the wildfire threat.

Swank said the committee could serve as an educational tool for Nevadans.

"I don't think people realize how much of Nevada has burned recently and the huge problem that we have as far as wildfires," Swank said.

Goicoechea said that opinions about the causes of wildfires range from climate change to cheatgrass and other invasive species. He said he believed work needed to be done on the rehabilitation of areas affected by fires and the reintroduction of native plants.

"There's just a lot of different views on how we resolve this and what we're going to do about it," Goicoechea said.

He also stressed the need to stop the introduction of invasive species.

"We can't continue to turn a million acres of this sagebrush that we've got here, our ecosystem, into cheatgrass," he said. "If we do that for the next decade, like we have for the last 20 years, the state of Nevada will have fire every year, and major fire."

Swank and Goicoechea have been "tremendous leaders" on the issue of combating wildfires, Cortez Masto said.

"The collaboration between stakeholders, especially in our rural communities, has been inspiring, and I'm proud to see Nevadans working together to develop plans and initiatives while advocating for the funding and resources we need to prevent and recover from wild and rangeland fires," she said.

For Southern Nevada, concerns are Spring Mountains and invasive grasses

In 2016, a little over 265,000 acres statewide burned from wildfires. In 2017, around 1.3 million acres burned, and in 2018 a little over a million acres burned, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Swank said more years with burns like that could severely affect the state's economy, not only in terms of rangeland destruction, but also in tourism activities.

"We know outdoor recreation is a huge economy here in Nevada," Swank said. "If we continue to burn at a million acres a year, we are going to lose a lot of that recreating space."

Southern Nevada, she said, has its own dangers from invasive grasses.

"Up north they've got cheatgrass; down here we've got red brome," Swank said.

Red brome is an invasive species from the Mediterranean that, according to the U.S. Forest Service, only "actively grows" for about four to six weeks. Yet, the Forest Service calls it a major wildfire hazard.

"As the grass matures, red brome provides a fine-fuel source that decomposes slowly and greatly increases the fire potential, intensity and burn speed in areas where it has invaded," a Forest Service the guide reads.

The 2013 Carpenter 1 Fire burned through about 28,000 acres of the Spring Mountains, including Mount Charleston, just north of Las Vegas.

Six years later, Swank said the area still had some issues that needed to be addressed in regard to wildfire prevention and safety.

"Mount Charleston has some challenges — like there's one road in and one road out, which is never good if you would need to get trucks in and people out when there's a fire," Swank said. "So there's some definite challenges here and people should be concerned."

Economic effects of wildfires

Swank said the typical effects of a Nevada wildfire were different than that of one, say, in California.

"We're not burning homes and we're not having the massive casualties that California had, but we are burning a lot of our rangeland that our ranchers rely upon," Swank said, citing the Martin Fire in 2018 that burned around 435,000 acres.

This destruction, she said, can have a big effect on local economies.

Cortez Masto said that wildfires in Nevada are different than those in California due to the population disparities. California wildfires, the images of which Cortez Masto called "heart wrenching," are more threatening to people and buildings than Nevada wildfires, she said.

"These fires often don't threaten lives and structures in the same ways as the ones you see in California," she said. "In Nevada, these fires impact the environment and our wildlife habitats, threaten the livelihoods of ranchers and miners and disrupt outdoor economies in rural communities and the lives of those in less-populated regions than the ones in California."

Cortez Masto said that federal guidelines for fire emergencies don't give the same consideration to rural areas dependent on public lands for their economic livelihoods.

"Currently, federal reimbursement guidelines exclude sparsely populated ranges, and that has serious repercussions for Nevadans," Cortez Masto said. "We saw this following the devastating South Sugarloaf Fire, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected Nevada's application for a fire management grant because the fire 'did not constitute a major disaster.'"

Swank said that another concern was that destruction of rangeland could affect wildlife, as well.

"The fact that we have worked so hard to get our sage grouse numbers up so that it wouldn't be listed as an endangered species, and now we wipe out a lot of that habitat," Swank said. "That just puts that species in peril along with a lot of other species that rely on Nevada's rangelands."

Goicoechea said there were areas in Northern Nevada that could be affected just as badly as what has happened in California, though.

"There's not a whole lot of difference. It's just one side of the Sierra and the other."

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