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State needs to grow its comprehensive wildfire response plan

Nevada is wildfire country.

Not only is it home to most of the enormous Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, but also its vast basin-and-range topography can send visitors from desert floors to subalpine forests in a matter of a few miles.

It’s that way in the Spring Mountains of Southern Nevada, a place I’ve lived since 1991. My day job at the Las Vegas Review-Journal is in an asphalt desert under 2,500 feet. My little house in Old Town in upper Kyle Canyon at Mount Charleston is more than 7,200 feet. Commute time: about 35 minutes.

It’s that way on the edge of Reno and Carson City, too. A key reason folks love Elko and Ely is the towns’ proximity to wild country.

So it wasn’t surprising when a lightning strike July 1 near Carpenter Canyon sparked a wildfire that quickly spread through the parched pinyon and juniper forest. What had some locals smoldering was what they considered the lethargic first response to the fire in an area well known to forest personnel for its potential for fire disaster. Kyle Canyon is a box canyon, and for years officials have ruminated over the best way to make it as safe as possible, including implementing a sweeping fuels reduction plan.

As the Carpenter 1 Fire spread, its ranking on the government’s list of priorities also rose. In a few days, officials said it had become the top priority in the country. By then, of course, it had burned nearly 20,000 acres and threatened the homes of more than 500 residents in a canyon visited by a couple of million hikers, campers and picnickers each year.

Many Nevadans revel in their stripped-down state government services, and I’ll leave the great Silver State libertarian debate for another day. But with experts predicting an increase in size and intensity of wildfire because of a variety of factors ranging from climate change and decreased water sources to increases in human encroachment on the land, it’s obvious Nevada needs to grow its comprehensive wildfire response plan.

If those experts are to be believed, it’s only a matter of time before we are hit with a firestorm that surely will overwhelm available services from throughout the region. That means there’s no legitimate excuse for leaders in Washington to pretend they’re unaware of the impending danger and potential cost to lives, property and natural resources.

I’ve previously suggested Congress find a way to make use of our military’s vast resources to help fight wildland fires. When you know hundreds and thousands of aircraft are sitting at military airfields when with a little creativity they could be used to fight fire and give their pilots flight hours, it makes you ponder the possibilities.

Constitutional questions aside, there must be a way to integrate our citizen military to greatly increase our preparedness for that eventual challenge of multiple megafires occurring simultaneously in the West.

Nevada is wildfire country.

Carpenter 1, 85 percent contained Tuesday evening, had burned approximately 28,000 acres of forest — about 43 square miles of wild lands — in Southern Nevada. On Sunday, the Bison fire burning in Douglas County, which consumed more than 24,000 acres, was pronounced 100 percent contained.

Those firefighters are to be congratulated, but those positioned close enough to see the blazes know good fortune in the form of wet weather played a role in assisting in the effort. As smoke from Carpenter 1 Fire clears, I am left wondering whether we really appreciate the challenges ahead, and whether our elected officials are losing any sleep over it.

Nevada Native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Reach him at 383-0295 or at jsmith@reviewjournal.com

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