By Assemblywoman Heidi Swank and U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto
A few weeks ago, we joined dozens of Nevadans in Reno for a first-of-its-kind summit on one of the most devastating problems affecting our state: the fires devastating our rangelands and impacting our communities. As we sat in that room with firefighters, ranchers, conservationists, scientists, power company executives, representatives of government agencies, and others, we were encouraged to see how many partners from all over the state are committed to keeping our communities safe and working with us to undertake prevention efforts and help affected communities rebuild.
Yet the summit highlighted key shortfalls in addressing wildfires. Most fundamentally, state and federal governments simply have not allocated enough money to respond to fires. This is especially true because fires on Nevada’s often sparsely populated ranges don’t always affect human structures, and federal guidelines prioritize funding to reimburse losses to businesses and residences. The federal government must also recognize that we’re not just facing forest fires; rangeland fires pose an enormous threat as invasive cheatgrass and climate change take hold, yet funding for rangeland recovery is woefully inadequate to the need. Just as critically, the federal government has no long-term plan to address how to restore the landscape over the years-long period it will take to recover from many of Nevada’s megafires. Finally, conversations at the summit confirmed that we need much more coordination, communication, and collaboration at the local, state, and federal levels.
As Nevada’s elected leaders, we’ve been working together for years to increase that coordination so we can develop solutions to the urgent crisis of wild and rangeland fires. We know agencies are scrambling for funds as wildfires multiply and intensify. That’s why both of us have taken action to institute funding “fixes” that create a permanent disaster fund for fires, so that agencies aren’t left empty-handed when they need money the most. In 2018, one of us—Senator Cortez Masto—was instrumental in passing such a fix in the United States Senate. This year, the other, Assemblywoman Swank, helped win a corresponding fix in the Nevada state legislature. We’re proud our partnership brought to life this critical source of wildfire funding, and we’re also working in our respective chambers to boost preparation and recovery.
At the state level, Assemblywoman Swank has made wild and rangeland fire prevention and recovery a priority. She introduced groundbreaking legislation that has created an interim study committee to dive deeply into the subject of these fires and generate solutions so that future Nevada state legislatures can adopt legislation that will protect our communities and strengthen our economies. She has also successfully passed an amendment to a natural resources bill that set aside $5 million for wildfire “prevention, restoration and long-term planning.” The state can access the funds once the federal government or private organizations match the reserves.
For her part, Senator Cortez Masto is fighting in the U.S. Senate to help state and federal partners get the money that’s needed to combat wildfires. She’s helped ensure that state, federal and external funds are used in the most efficient way possible to prevent fires, and to assist communities with recovery after fires happen. She’s also met with rural leaders to make sure farmers and ranchers are at the forefront of discussions on protecting our public lands from wildfires. She’s traveled across the state to hear from local leaders, and these conversations prompted her to organize a Wildfire Summit in August.
Both of us are committed to working together to protect all Nevadans, but especially those at the greatest risk. Rural and diverse communities, including our Native tribes, are disproportionately at risk when wildfires strike. For Native American communities throughout the United States, a long history of neglect has prevented them from having the critical resources and support needed to combat wild and rangeland fires on their lands. These communities’ historic displacement onto federal reservations puts them at risk – federal reservations are six times more likely to be located in grasslands and forests that are most vulnerable and prone to fires. Disadvantaged groups are also less likely to be able to afford insurance or services like fuel removal and tree trimming to make their homes fire-resilient, and crowding in multiunit housing makes evacuation difficult. Other vulnerable communities include people with physical disabilities and seniors, as mobility issues impair quick evacuations when every second matters. These at-risk communities are at the forefront of our minds as we brainstorm solutions to prevent and respond to rangeland and wildfires so that we can save lives, protect property and ensure the economies of our local communities are secure.
The time for action on wild and rangeland fire prevention and recovery is now. Our state is burning at a record pace, and more damage to entire ecosystems and communities lies ahead if we don’t fully and proactively commit ourselves to wildfire solutions. The lessons we learned at the Wildfire Summit only strengthened our resolve for Nevada to continue to convene stakeholders, drive the conversation forward, and take the lessons we’ve learned to Carson City and Washington, D.C. to fight for the tools and resources our state needs. We’ve proudly laid a foundation to strengthen local, state and federal partnerships to address wildfires, and we’ll continue fighting alongside one another to keep our beautiful landscapes and communities in Nevada safe.