A tanker applies fire retardant near Chadron in September.
A bill that would help protect greater Nebraska against forest fires advanced through the Unicameral Monday.LB 634, the Wildfire Control Act of 2013,gmade it through the first round of consideration on a vote of 36-0, with eight senators not voting.
The bill is sponsored by freshman Sen. Al Davis, who ranches near Hyannis.
Under the bill, the Nebraska Forest Service would contract to place two single-engine air tankers near Chadron and Valentine to be ready to combat wildfires.
Davis said the planes, along with other provisions of the bill, would cost $1.7 million. He said the cost of preventing or reducing fires is less than the cost of doing nothing.
“This program should have been placed a long time ago,” Davis said. “We are moving into what appears to be a hotter and drier period in history. Fires are going to be stronger, harder, more severe and it’s time the state started taking some responsibility and be proactive rather than reactive.”
In 2012, 1,570 wildfires burned more than 500,000 acres of land in Nebraska.
By stark contrast, in 2011, Nebraska wildfires burned less than 37,000 acres.
Source: Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.
Lyons and Berndt said the majority of the fires were caused by lightning strikes and fueled by dry trees and crops, known as dry fuel -- the result of last summer’s drought and high temperatures.
More to battle red cedars
But senators thoroughly discussed another contributor to the wildfires: red cedars.
The tree that is technically a fire intolerant weed, makes fires more rampant. The trees have to be trimmed because their seedlings spread rapidly, increasing the potential for wildfires.
Davis said $600,000 in state money for the Fuel Reduction Program, alongside federal money and Natural Resources District funds, would be spent to try to eradicate the red cedar problem.
Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids said she didn’t want to get to the point where landowners would wait for grant money to take care of their cedars.
“It is a problem that to a certain extent should never have happened if the landowner was doing his or her due diligence and taking care of those cedar trees before they got to be a problem,” Sullivan said.
“Over time I’ve seen hills just blackened because the landowner just doesn’t take care of those cedar trees and then they get to be too big and you can’t do it with anything other than burning or mechanical eradication,” Sullivan said.
Davis said, “Most people are working pretty hard at the red cedar problem.”
“They were planted as wind break for many, many years and never had a problem but we have a new and sort of a more vigorous plant that’s out there taking over the acreage,” he said.
Two committee amendments to LB 634, introduced by Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege, were adopted with no votes against them.
The amendments added an emergency clause and eliminated the requirement for a Nebraska incident management team to assess fires because it exists in current statutes.
Carlson addressed concerns about spending and said the loss to individuals and the state would be too great not to pass the bill.
“That’s why I say this is a savings bill, not a spending bill,” he said.