Las Vegas Sun

April 19, 2019

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Guest column: Study is first defense against wildfires

In recent years, we have begun to see an increase in extreme wildfires across the western United States.

From 2000 to 2018, wildfires were responsible for burning 9.5 million acres in Nevada alone. The past two years were particularly brutal, as more than 2.3 million acres were destroyed by wildfires. Last year, the Martin Fire and the Sugarloaf Fire burned nearly 1 million acres in northeast Nevada.

Unchecked wildfires have dire economic and environmental impacts on local communities. They destroy grazing lands and disrupt ranching operations that are vital to our state’s farmers.

Fires also devastate the habitats of myriad wildlife, including endangered species, and foster fertile grounds for invasive plants.

For example, we have seen an influx of highly flammable plants, such as cheatgrass, that have overtaken our native sagebrush ecosystem. Today, we have an estimated 10 million acres of the Nevada landscape where cheatgrass is present. We need to be working toward better management of invasive species.

To make things worse, wildfires have occurred in sparsely populated areas in Nevada. This has made it difficult to get enough resources and firefighters to the fires, especially while they are in their early stages, when responders still have a chance to stop them from spreading and turning into large-scale disasters. That wildfires occur in remote and sparsely populated areas in Nevada also means that these large blazes do not open up federal dollars earmarked for wildfire disaster relief.

The formula for these federal funds considers a state’s population and damages to structures. This is a problem that is having drastic consequences for our state, but there are measures we can take to help reduce its impacts.

During the 2017-18 interim legislative session, the Legislative Committee on Public Lands, a bipartisan body whose purpose is to provide a forum for discussion of policies and issues related to public lands, began to discuss these complex issues. Our discussion resulted in the introduction of Assembly Concurrent Resolution 4, which aims to set up an interim study concerning wildfires in this state.

The committee will bring together members from each house of the Nevada Legislature as well as representatives of local, state, federal and tribal governments, and it will be tasked with assessing best practices in habitat and environmental protection; researching methods of reducing wildfire fuels; examining issues related to early responses to wildfires; and evaluating the economic impact of wildfires on the state and local communities.

This committee will act in consultation with wildlife, environmental and wildfire experts who will provide the knowledge necessary to implement the changes that Nevada needs to deal with this issue.

This is a fight that requires immediate action by our legislators, since wildfires are not only a threat to rural farmers but to all Nevadans who love the natural beauty of our state. Assembly Concurrent Resolution 4 will help provide the guidelines for what actions must be taken going forward.

Nevada legislators are not simply waiting for the next interim, however, to begin our work. We have formed a Wildfire Working Group that is meeting and collaborating with governmental agencies in an effort to identify gaps in resources for six weeks during this legislative session. Our group is bipartisan and bicameral, and it includes local, state and federal partners. In particular, we would like to thank Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s staff, as well as the federal agencies that are working together with us, on this important endeavor.

We are hopeful that this working group will allow us to begin to identify the issues that the interim committee will need to examine and address.

Nevada’s wildfires pose significant challenges to our rural communities, ranchlands and outdoor recreation. Without a more concentrated effort to manage our wildlife habitats, ecosystems and wildfires, Nevada will continue to burn.

I am confident that an interim study would provide us with a roadmap for future discussions concerning wildfire mitigation. I urge my colleagues in the Legislature and members of the public to support this resolution.

Heidi Swank has served in the Nevada Assembly since 2013 after being elected to represent constituents in the 16h District in 2012. The district covers a portion of the central valley.