LINCOLN — Nebraskans lost homes, farm outbuildings, mature forest, livestock feed and untold hours of volunteer labor last summer during a record-setting wildfire season that burned 500,000 acres.
“We are going to lose lives eventually, and we’re just awfully lucky it didn’t happen last summer,” Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis said Monday as he urged support for a bill intended to help the state better control wildfires.
Despite concerns about the bill’s $1.7 million cost, lawmakers voted 36-0 to advance the measure to the second round of floor debate.
Supporters of Legislative Bill 634 argued that it represents an investment that could save lives, property and money. Last year’s fires destroyed 65 buildings and cost the state’s emergency response system $12 million.
While it remains to be seen if the $1.7 million figure will stand as the Legislature sorts through budgeting decisions, Gov. Dave Heineman expressed support for improving the wildfire response capability.
“I believe this should be a very high priority for the state,” he said Tuesday during a conference call with reporters.
The bill would allow the state to contract with private aviation companies to station air tankers at Valentine and Chadron during fire season. The goal would be to dramatically cut response times when wildfires first flare up.
Davis, who introduced and prioritized the bill, said authorities told him one of the largest fires near Ainsworth could have been controlled had an aerial response occurred 15 minutes sooner. The fire burned for two weeks.
The bill also would devote funding to thin forests and help landowners pay for removal of red cedar trees, a major wildfire fuel source that has infested large areas of the state. It also would pay for additional firefighter training.
Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha said it’s hard to argue against doing more to address wildfires, especially after the toll they took last summer. But he cautioned his colleagues that other deserving bills will compete for the $16 million to $19 million in state funds available for new spending or tax cuts this session.
“Be discriminating,” Lathrop said. “Ask the tough questions.”
For example, he asked whether the state should make cedar trees a noxious weed and require private landowners to pay the full cost for their eradication. Several rural senators opposed the suggestion, saying even the most conscientious landowners struggle to stay ahead of cedars.
Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft joined other lawmakers in calling wildfire control a basic function of state government.
“It is a need, it’s not a want,” she said. “Why don’t we take a step of prevention and save land, save lives, save time?”
Senators also attached an emergency clause to the bill, meaning it would go into effect with the governor’s signature, rather than 90 days after the end of the session.
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