Nevada’s firefighting budget is in decent shape; feds’ isn’t
While the federal government is running short on money to fight wildfires, Nevada State Forester Pete Anderson says this state is in decent shape financially despite an above-average year for fire activity.
One of Nevada’s big advantages in paying for fighting wildfires, he said, is that the costs are divided up according to who owns the land that’s burning.
“Eighty-seven percent of the state, roughly, is federal,” Anderson said. “So most of our responses are on federal land, and we get reimbursed.”
The Carpenter fire on Mount Charleston in Clark County this year is an example, he said. Nevada’s share of the $21 million cost to fight it is just $2.5 million. Local governments in that area will see some costs but, he said, “the vast majority of that fire is the federal government’s” responsibility.
“Because we have so much federal land, we actually break even on most years or even exceed some of the actual costs,” Anderson said.
He said the goal isn’t to make money on wildland fires but to bill at rates that cover expenses, salaries, and wear and tear on vehicles.
“Basically, everything it takes to put that person on the ground,” Anderson said.
Nonetheless, he said they will go to the next Interim Finance Committee on Thursday to ask that some money from the past couple of years be carried forward to cover expected costs for this year and next. Anderson said $4.5 million will be added to the $2.5 million lawmakers provided each year of this biennium for firefighting.
The money is needed because, while the federal government does reimburse the state, he said the process takes 12-18 months. Contractors who help fight those fires as well as firefighters themselves can’t wait that long to be paid.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that, nationally, the U.S. Forest Service has spent $967 million fighting fires this year and has just $50 million left in that budget, with 51 uncontrolled fires burning mostly in the western states.
USFS is reportedly moving $600 million out of other programs to pay for firefighting, the sixth time since 2002 the agency has had to do that.
Anderson said the way the federal process works, the Forest Service basically has to spend its existing money before they can ask Congress for supplemental funding.
Some predict that the total cost this year will approach $2 billion nationwide, he said.
“It’s just terrible,” Anderson said.
Although Nevada hasn’t been hit with the catastrophic blazes seen in Idaho, Oregon and Colorado, he said, the state has had an above-average amount of acreage burn this year.
“This year we’re looking at 186,675 acres,” he said. “Our initial attack has been pretty darn good in most cases, except for Bison (in Douglas County) and Carpenter.”
Anderson cautioned that the last three weeks of August often are the worst of the fire season, and that number could get a lot larger before fall weather arrives.
Nevada is coming off of what he described as a couple of “fairly big years.” A total of 430,061 acres burned in 2011, followed by 613,126 in 2012.
But the two years before that were much lighter, with just 33,336 acres burned in 2009 and 23,867 in 2010.
The worst year in recent memory was 2006, when more than 1.3 million acres burned, a large portion of it in northeastern Nevada including Elko County.
As for costs, Anderson said, “costs pretty much correlate with acres burned.”
Despite the ongoing drought, he said, one area in better shape than it has been in a long time is the Tahoe basin, where more than 55,000 acres have been treated with fuels-reduction programs.
“There’s been quite a good focused program with the fire chiefs and local communities in the basin, and we’re starting to see the benefits of it just driving around the lake now,” he said. “I think the basin is in much better shape.”