Hot, dry, windy weather and too many eastern red cedar trees made 2012 the worst year in history for wildfires in Nebraska, said Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis during a Natural Resources Committee hearing Friday, Feb. 22.
Davis sponsored Legislative Bill 634, the Wildfire Control Act of 2013, to address a trend toward “mega-fires” in Nebraska. Fires increased in frequency and size starting after 1989, said Nebraska State Forester Scott Josiah.
“We have to keep the fires smaller and hit them harder early on,” he said.
LB 634 would dedicate two air tankers to fire fighting during the summer, thin forests, train volunteer firefighters, create an incident management team, expand a federal and state cost-share program and oversee rehabilitation of burnt forests.
Davis said 50 percent of the cost-share program in the act would come from federal funds, 25 percent from state funds and 25 percent from landowners.
Fourteen people testified at the hearing, all in favor of the bill, from fire chiefs and landowners to mayors and researchers.
The act proposes keeping leased, single-engine tanker planes at both Chadron and Valentine during the three months when fires are most likely, Davis said.
The planes would carry water and put out small fires, and pilots could spot fires faster to alert other firefighters, he said.
It costs $100,000 a day to use a Blackhawk helicopter, $200,000 for a Chinook helicopter and $4,000 for the single-engine planes, Josiah said.
The act would also add two positions focused on training firefighters statewide and would air to triple the number of volunteer firefighters, Josiah said.
Ninety percent volunteer firefighters have not gone through basic fire suppression trainings, he said, so they’re not ready to deal with mega-fires.
“We can save money and get on those fires to keep them small,” he said, but he said there’s a lot of cedar trees ready to burn. It’s a statewide problem. The number of cedar trees has doubled over the past five years and cost ranchers a lot of money.
Rich Bringelson of Doniphan said he contracted someone to clear trees from his 1,100 acres of pasture at $200 to $500 an acre. And the trees grow back a few years later, he said.
His parents raised him to leave something better than he received, he said.
“I’m not trying to live off of (the land,)” he said. “It’s just something I can leave behind.”