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April 24, 2014

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Wildfire prevention funds dry up as need grows

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Aaron Leifheit / Courtesy Photo

The Mount Charleston fire seen from highway 159, west of Calico Basin road, Wednesday, July 10, 2013.

July 14: Mount Charleston Fire

Thank you posters are displayed on an information board at Centennial High School Sunday, July 14, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Call it the Jerry Maguire theory of budgeting.

At a time when large wildfires have charred wide swathes of land in both Northern and Southern Nevada, the state’s forestry division faces millions of dollars of cuts in federal fire prevention grants and has little recourse but to go to Congress and repeat the line from the famous Hollywood movie: Show me the money!

Nevada’s ability to prevent wildfires faces further pressure as the federal agencies that control nearly 90 percent of the land in Nevada prepare to cut their fire prevention budgets and as a state nonprofit agency that once informed communities about fire safety and brought millions of dollars into the state for fire prevention has gone bankrupt.

For now, the state forestry division’s budget dropped from $18.8 million during the last fiscal year to $6.9 million for the fiscal year that started this month.

The state largely relies on U.S. Forest Service grants to mitigate fire risks, but much of the mitigation money technically doesn’t exist without a federal budget, which Congress may approve in September.

The pages of the state budget literally show blank white space where the grant dollars should be. No federal budget means no money for Nevada.

The threat of a potential federal government shutdown over disagreements about what the nation should spend in 2014 leaves state officials without a clear idea of what they can spend on fire mitigation.

“We don’t know if our budget has been reduced,” said David Prather, a deputy administrator at the Nevada Division of Forestry. “As long as they’re having their budget battles in the Capitol, we just have to wait and see what the fallout is. Really, that’s one of those things that’s beyond our control.”

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., indicated Wednesday that he’d support more money for fire prevention, perhaps allaying concerns that federal budgets for fire prevention will decrease in the coming years.

Reid said climate change is to blame for the increasing severity and prevalence of Western wildfires.

“I mean you can’t deny it, it’s here,” he said. “Why do you think we’re having all these fires? … We should be spending a lot more on prevention, and that means thinning some of these forests.”

In addition to the uncertainty around prevention funds, a statewide nonprofit agency that brought millions of dollars to the state for fire prevention and helped study wildland fire risks and mitigations has filed for bankruptcy amid findings that it misspent federal stimulus money.

It was the Nevada Fire Safe Council that first alerted Nevada to the “extreme” fire risks in the Spring Mountains around Mount Charleston, where the Carpenter 1 fire has burned more than 28,000 acres to date.

“It was an organization that promoted fire-safe planning in local communities, kind of at the local level,” said Sheila Anderson, senior research specialist at Resource Concepts, Inc., a consulting company that the Nevada Fire Safe Council retained to study fire risks in Nevada communities a decade ago. “They formed chapters all over the state.”

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These are photos taken by firefighter Jason Mumford during his overnight shift near the Rainbow Subdivision while fighting the Mount Charleston fire late Tuesday, July 9, 2013, and early Wednesday, July 10, 2013.

After the council’s demise, no other organization has stepped forward to bring in the millions of dollars of grants, partner with communities to promote fire-prevention education, and fund risk studies.

Meanwhile, with fire season far from over, dry conditions and a long-term drought affecting Southern Nevada, wildland fires could continue to grow in magnitude and intensity.

Such fires are also very expensive to fight. The pricetag for the Bison fire in Douglas County exceeds $7.7 million, and the Mount Charleston fire has cost $17.5 million as of July 16.

The federal government controls a vast majority of the land in Nevada, including much of the scorched land left in the wake of the Mount Charleston fire and the Bison fire. So federal funding for preventing and fighting fires and restoring lost habitat greatly affects Nevada.

A recent U.S. Forest Service report estimates that 65 million to 82 million acres of National Forest land needs preventative work that would reduce fire risks. That acreage doesn’t include land maintained by the Bureau of Land Management, the other major federal agency responsible for fighting wildland fires in Nevada.

Both agencies face large cuts to their fire prevention budgets under President Barack Obama’s latest spending proposal.

The money would pay for the kind of mitigation that state forestry officials say effectively prevents the spread of fires.

Laborers clear away brush that fuels fires and establish barren areas called “fuel breaks,” areas absent of the flammable plant life that fires devour.

“When the fire is in the trees, the fire is off the ground,” said Pete Anderson, the state forester, the top official with the Nevada Division of Forestry. “You literally have a wall of fire coming through the woodland, but when you hit a fuel break, the fire hits the ground because you no longer have dense forestry.”

Such a fuel break stood between the blaze fire and homes as the blaze on Mount Charleston advanced down mountain slopes into places like Kyle Canyon.

When lightning ignited the largest fire in recent Clark County history, it struck an area of “extreme hazard communities.”

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A Sikorsky Skycrane picks up a load of fire retardant near Kyle Canyon Road while fighting the Mt. Charleston fire Saturday, July 13, 2013.

The Carpenter 1 fire that began July 1 prompted evacuations and advanced on homes in Kyle Canyon, a community that a 2005 Nevada Fire Safe Council report called "a disaster waiting to happen” and “highly vulnerable to catastrophic fire.”

While the canyon had seen fires before, this one was different. To date, it has burned more acreage than all the wildland fires in Clark County between 1980 and 2000.

"It was some of the most extreme fire behavior I’ve ever seen," Anderson said. "The fuels moisture levels were so low. They (trees) preheat and just burst into flames. It’s a scary deal."

Even with such dry conditions, the fire halted -- its progress stymied by a series of preventative fuel breaks and the hard work of firefighters, who had cleared brush and set backfires in advance of the fire’s path.

Although the fire assailed the Kyle Canyon neighborhood from three sides, the mix of upfront prevention and active firefighting appears to have helped save homes.

In some ways, the Kyle Canyon community was prepared.

State and federal forest officials worked throughout the mid-2000s to establish plans to mitigate fire risk in the Spring Mountains.

The Nevada Fire Safe Council “Nevada Community Wildfire Risk/Hazard Assessment Project” report from 2005 noted that none of the homes in Kyle Canyon had adequate space between their walls and the forest.

The report plainly called for urgent action in many communities in the Spring Mountains near Mount Charleston.

“The forests surrounding these communities need aggressive thinning in order to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires and lower the probability for loss of life and property,” the report states. “The current fuel conditions, limited access, and high ignition risks characterizing these communities are the precursors for disastrous fires.”

Photos from the report show dense clumps of cliffrose, bursage and grasses lining the canyon floor while taller masses of sagebrush and rabbitbrush grow close to ponderosa pine, mountain mahogany, white fir, aspen and Gambel’s oak trees. A fire on the ground could burn up through the brush, igniting the trees and homes with them.

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Firefighter/paramedics Charlie Bowman, left, and Mark Secrist display equipment on their Type 3 brush truck at Centennial High School Sunday, July 14, 2013.

The clear danger prompted action.

In 2007, forestry officials told state legislators that they were beginning to clear brush and build fuel breaks, which would impede the progress of a large fire as it burnt through dense brush and threatened homes.

The work in Kyle Canyon began in 2009 and was completed in 2011, according to a United States Forest Service website.

“Harris Springs (Ranch) is a good spot to really see where fuel breaks worked,” Anderson said. “If you went up there and looked at Harris Ranch and the buildings that were there, they had great fuels work in place. The fire literally stopped.”

Moistures levels in the flora in the Spring Mountains remain low, making fuels reduction work even more important.

“There needs to be a fuel-reduction program, but in some areas that doesn’t happen in a silo,” said Scott Rutledge, executive director of the Nevada Conservation League. “You have to consider the overall health of the range.”

Reid echoed Rutledge’s concerns about the health of Nevada’s ecosystems, saying drier climates have changed the game for policymakers when they consider wildfire prevention, suppression and rehabilitation.

“We have climate change, things are different,” he said. “The forests are drier, the winters are shorter and we have these terrible fires all over the west. Just take Nevada, the high desert. We have this stuff burn. And then what do we have to replace this? We have foreign species: Cheat grass and other such things that are ruining our rangelands.”

Now, with the fire on Mount Charleston largely contained, clean-up teams are assessing the damage and noting risks for landslides in areas now lacking much plant life. The national team of firefighters will leave behind recommendations to state and local officials, but it’s unclear whether the state will have the money to pay for them.

“We just won’t be able to get as far and do as much,” Prather said of the potential federal budget cuts. “But the people here who do that work are constantly revising their priorities. Remember at the same time we’re doing these projects, the feds are also doing them.”

The U.S. Forest Service says it plans fire mitigation work on at least another 1,600 acres in the Spring Mountains, all of it in and around the fire area.

The money for that project already seems to be in place.

But Nevada’s forestry division still has to wait around until September to find out whether or not Congress is going to approve money for fire prevention.

“We’re not as rock certain as we like to be, but when you’re dealing in fire that’s pretty much how everything is,” Prather said. “Nobody’s got a real good crystal ball around here."

And if the money doesn’t come through, Nevada’s ability to prepare for the next big fire will rely on what’s available.

“We’ll prioritize the projects and do what we can do,” Prather said.

Sun reporter Karoun Demirjian contributed to this story.

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