LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska fire experts pointed to a fast-spreading tree species on Feb. 22 as a major contributor to last year's wildfires, as lawmakers pondered how to combat blazes that have grown increasingly common.
The Legislature's Natural Resources Committee heard testimony from state forestry and fire experts who echoed a common theme: The eastern red cedar tree is fueling many of the worst blazes.
The trees, which produce highly flammable needles and resin, are spreading over an estimated 38,000 to 40,000 acres per year, said Nebraska State Forester Scott Josiah.
Josiah said extreme heat and drought are also to blame, but the eastern red cedar is slowly turning Nebraska's vast prairielands into a combustible forest. The total area covered by the trees has doubled in the last five years, to 350,000 acres. The tree is considered an invasive species that was previously controlled by fires, but the development of roads, plowed fields and other fire breaks limited earlier wildfires and allowed the tree to quickly multiply. The trees are sometimes eliminated through cutting and prescribed burns.
"This is no longer a Pine Ridge or a Niobrara Valley problem," Scott said. "This is a statewide problem."
The hearing was called for a bill introduced by Sen. Al Davis, of Hyannis. Davis, who has served as volunteer firefighter, urged lawmakers to act quickly on the measure, which would require the Nebraska Forest Service to contract with private companies to station single-engine air tankers near Chadron and Valentine for firefighting. The measure would call for the thinning of state forests to reduce the wildfire risk, and an expansion of training programs for residents and volunteer firefighters. It also would create an incident-management team that would help respond to future wildfires.
Davis said on Feb. 22 that he plans to introduce an amendment that would, among other things, put the law into effect as soon as Gov. Dave Heineman signs it.
Nebraska lawmakers are rethinking the state's approach to wildfires in the wake of massive summer blazes that threatened property and lives. Their actions may include a push for Nebraska to join the Great Plains Interstate Fire Compact.
The compact is comprised of Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. It was formed to ensure that the states provide people and equipment to help one another with fire prevention and control. Lawmakers also discussed possible cost-sharing agreements with other states.
Unlike many of its neighbor states, Josiah said, Nebraska has no statewide fire-suppression force. Instead, the state relies on local fire departments and offers support through the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.
"We really are putting our state's public safety as well as our natural resources at risk by relying on other states to come in and help us," said Sen. Annette Dubas, of Fullerton. "If we aren't stepping up to provide that same thing for our state, we really are at their mercy."
Davis' bill, which has eight co-sponsors, would cost the state about $1.7 million for the air tankers, volunteer training and surplus firefighting equipment. But the committee chairman, Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege, said the cost of inaction could exceed that initial investment.
Nebraska experienced 1,570 wildfires last year that burned a total of 786 square miles - an expanse nearly seven times the size of Omaha, according to the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.
According to state emergency officials, 98 percent of the wildfires were caused by lightning strikes, and the combined cost of ground-level firefighting, aerial suppression and mutual aid from other states cost Nebraska about $12 million.
Josiah said the size, frequency and overall number of fires have all increased dramatically since 1989. He said last year's fire burned one-third of the trees in the Pine Ridge Ranger District in northwest Nebraska. Only 80,000 to 100,000 acres were left untouched, he said.
"We have to keep the fires smaller, and hit them harder early on," he said.
The bill also has support from firefighter groups and representatives for agriculture, including the Nebraska Cattlemen and the Nebraska Farmers Union.