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A regional collaboration of public media stations that serve the Rocky Mountain States of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Fire managers face daunting challenges despite boost in funding

The Mullen Fire burning in Wyoming at night in Oct 2020
Greg Sanders
/
InciWeb
The Mullen Fire

News Brief

New federal infrastructure funding may help with forest and wildfire management, but big hurdles remain.

That was highlighted in Tuesday's Western Governors’ Association webinar on the subject. 

One thing experts made clear was that federal and state agencies still face challenges with recruiting and retaining firefighters, despite increasing base pay.

They cited burnout from longer, brutal fire seasons and skyrocketing housing costs.

Kacey KC, who leads the Nevada Division of Forestry, says plenty of out-of-state people have applied for jobs.

"We’ve tried to hire them, and we’ve been unsuccessful because when they looked into housing here, they could not afford to move here,” she said. “So we are really working on; how does the state pay a little bit different?”

KC also emphasized the continued need to work with private citizens and groups to manage land with tools like prescribed burns. That includes educating people about air quality and smoke, especially when smoke can sometimes be mitigated with prescribed burning, unlike with wildfires.

“The state of Nevada had the worst year we’ve ever seen from a smoke impact perspective last year,” she said. “We’ve been working very closely with hospitals and air quality workers – something I don’t think I ever would have said 20 years ago – to figure out; how do we help educate the population on air quality impacts?”

Webinar speakers also mentioned differing needs unique to each state and ecosystem. For example, in areas without a traditional logging industry, it’s hard to offset costs from thinning areas at risk for extreme wildfires.

KC noted that even with funds, it’s still hard to get certain necessities like chainsaws and vehicles because of supply chain issues.

Earlier this year, the Forest Service announced plans that it would focus on specific, high-risk areas of the U.S. to focus its resources. That included dramatically increasing forest thinning and prescribed burns in Western areas, including sections of Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Arizona.

Craig Foss, state forester with Idaho Department of Lands, said concentrating on certain areas is key.

“In Idaho, we’ve got approximately two-thirds of the manageable federal land is at risk (from wildfires), so we need to focus on treating the right acres,” he said.

The Forest Service didn’t include areas to focus on in Wyoming and Nevada this next fiscal year, though the states may still reap the benefits of reduced smoke coming from neighboring areas.

Jason Kuiken, deputy team leader with the Wildfire Risk Reduction Infrastructure Team at the U.S. Forest Service, talked about the massive task ahead.

“What we’ve identified is really a need of treating up to an additional 20 million acres on National Forest System lands and 30 million acres on state, tribal and private lands in the next 10 years, including figuring out a way to maintain those acres that are treated," he said. "And that’s on top of what we’re already doing. We need everybody at the table to help resolve this issue.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.