By Mark Waite
Nye County Emergency Services Director Vance Payne Tuesday warned county commissioners firefighting resources have been diverted to fight major wildfires burning in Colorado and elsewhere, robbing Nye County of outside help if a major fire breaks out here.
“It’s no secret out there that it’s really, really, really dry and the fuel values that we’re seeing right now are of late August and September. Things are primed and ready to burn,” Nye County EMS Logistics Officer Kevin Kleinworth said.
The growth of cheat grass and heavier fire fuels up in northern Nye County are creating a higher than normal potential for significant wildfires and rapid growth of wildfires this year, Kleinworth said. The silver lining may be the prediction of an El Nino climate event forecast by mid-summer, which could bring more precipitation to southern Nye County, but may not help in the north, he said.
Payne said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management Nevada office is stressing people to use canned fuels and propane stoves instead of open campfires.
“It needs to be brought up at a public meeting, people using our county for recreational uses, we’re begging them; it’s imperative, canned fuel, standard stove,” Payne said.
Firefighters in Colorado were fighting a wildfire that has charred nearly 92 square miles west of Fort Collins. It was only half contained by Tuesday morning. Another fire broke out near Pagosa Springs in southwestern Colorado that grew to nearly 19 square miles; it was 30 percent contained Tuesday morning.
A wildfire in southern New Mexico destroyed 242 homes and businesses around Ruidoso. Arizona firefighters were battling a 3,100-acre fire on the Tonto National Forest.
In Nevada, firefighting crews fought a 34-square-mile wildfire on the East Schell Mountain Range near Ely while a brush fire destroyed a home near Reno.
County Manager Pam Webster invited EMS officials to speak under commissioner’s comments, on a situation she said was of dire importance.
“I personally believe we need to take matters into our own hands and don’t count on Nevada Division of Forestry and BLM for the initial response,” Payne said.
Local communities in Nye County have the capability to address wild land fires, but county Commissioner Joni Eastley noted all the big firefighting equipment has been moved away from many completely isolated towns. Payne said they were moved because there weren’t legal operators to run them without incurring county liability.
Payne said he was grateful for the Tonopah Conservation Camp. But he said even having standard 24 crew honor camp firefighters mobilized immediately it would be tough to protect communities. He was concerned over fires breaking out in the high country, like the area between Ione and Reese River Valley or Currant Summit.
“The faster we can deliver resources to that incident, the better chance we’re going to have of protecting our communities,” Payne said.
“If you get a fire in some of these spots, at the base of Manhattan or Belmont, the reality of the whole situation, unless you have a dam above it that you could break and wash the whole valley out, the fire is going to be over and our properties destroyed before we could even mobilize this stuff,” Payne said.
However, Payne said he’s working with Nye County Public Works Director Dave Fanning to keep water tankers full and ready. Blading equipment is available that can create fire breaks.
Payne said he won’t hesitate to quickly request a federal declaration of emergency in the event there’s a fire outbreak that requires calling in outside help. That could help recoup costs, he said.
“I’d rather look a little foolish and do it early than look like a true idiot and not do it initially and we lose resources,” Payne said.
The office of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., issued a press release this month, over legislation be pushed through allowing the U.S. Forest Service to quickly acquire at least seven new large air tankers to fight wildfires during the 2012 and 2013 fire season, after two crashes. Reid’s office said the forest service is contending with an aging fleet of aircraft with planes designed for combat in the Korean War. The forest service said it needed between 18 and 28 new air tankers for optimal response.
County Commission Chairman Lorinda Wichman used the discussion to make a political statement at Tuesday’s meeting.
“One of the things that is one of the hugest fire fuels that we have that’s going nuts up north is cheat grass,” Wichman said. “One of the things that’s encouraging all of that cheat grass is the BLM and forest service continue to pull back permits on grazing allotments.”
In a possibly related item, county commissioners approved a letter to President Obama opposing a proposed increase of $1 per head per month in grazing allotment fees paid by ranchers. The resolution states county livestock producers have been the longest standing industry providing sustainable economic benefit to all. It adds the animal unit month fees have been adjusted annually based on the market for decades to allow livestock producers to anticipate the viability of their operation.
The increase could cause the U.S. to become more reliant on foreign food production with less regulation, the letter states.
“The livestock grazing industry not only provides the obvious but also helps us control the huge cost of weed management and wildlife fuel reduction. You will be assessing a fee that will escalate the cost of fighting wildfires, infestation of weeds will exacerbate the wildfire fuels, wildfire habitat will be critically reduced and protection of the endangered species will be nearly impossible,” the letter states.
Outgoing national BLM director Bob Abbey said the $1 per animal per month fee was a three-year pilot program assessing an administrative processing fee for renewing grazing permits. Wichman said it would be a 75 percent increase from the $1.35 AUM fee.
Wichman also signed letters of opposition to President Obama and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar as chairman of the Nevada Association of Counties Public Lands and Natural Resources Committee.
Wichman indicated the discussion could be moot, as a public lands publication mentioned a vote on increasing the fee, included in a Democratic amendment, failed in Congress.