Compact expected to be approved would help Kansas fight wildfires

April 1, 2017

By Morgan Chilson

The Kansas Senate approved a bill last week that should make it easier to get help from out-of-state resources if Kansas is faced with more devastating wildfires in the future.

The bill would give approval for the state to join the Great Plains Interstate Fire Compact, which would make it easier and faster for Kansas firefighters to get help in emergency situations, said Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan.

Larry Biles, state forester at the Kansas Forest Service, said the compact that aligns Kansas with six other states and a Canadian province would have made a difference in fighting the 2017 fire that destroyed a record 650,000 acres of western Kansas.

“The last two big fires that we’ve had, the Anderson Creek in ’16 and the Starbuck fire in ’17, those fires originated in the state of Oklahoma,” he said. “Had we had the compact, the staff members that they put together to manage and suppress that fire could have come across the border to help suppress the fire that came with them, to include using aircraft airdrop on the fire as they were doing in Oklahoma.

“Because we were not in the compact, they turned the planes back south.”

The bill to join the compact was sent back to the House for approval after the Senate changed its effective date to speed up the timeline for joining. Despite a tough House schedule, Hawk said, he is sure the bill will be voted on and hopefully approved in the coming week. Gov. Sam Brownback is expected to approve it.

Hawk, who serves on the Kansas Forest Service Council, said the compact is a critical “first step” to make sure Kansas is prepared to fight fires like the one that burned in Clark and Reno counties, called the Starbuck fire. Last year’s Anderon Creek fire burned just over 300,000 acres, which at that time was record destruction.

“I really would like to see us relook at and think about our state Forestry Service, how it really should be funded appropriately,” Hawk said. He referred to the Kansas Forest Service budget of $3 million, of which $1 million is geared toward firefighting efforts statewide, particularly supporting local budgets in areas that operate volunteer fire departments. Oklahoma’s budget for its forest service is at least three times that amount, he said.

The compact, once it receives its expected approval, will make it easier for Kansas emergency personnel to reach out to other states to ask for help in large-scale situations. Kansas will join Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, New Mexico, Nebraska, Wyoming and Saskatchewan, Canada, in the pact, said Jim Strain, deputy director of the South Dakota Division of Wildland Fires. Although Oklahoma isn’t one of those states, the Great Plains compact has an agreement with the compact Oklahoma is in to work together.

“What the beauty of the compact is is it allows a state forestry agency or an emergency management agency to mobilize resources across state lines into Kansas without having to go through the federal government to process, with just a quick phone call,” he said. “Based on some pre-established agreements and rates, help could be coming into Kansas just as soon as the phone call’s done.”

In recent fires like Kansas’, even a few hours can make all the difference.

“I personally spoke to the fire chief out in Ashland, and he said that had that (compact) been in place that maybe would have allowed anywhere between 12 and 24 hours sooner access to some of those out-of-state resources,” said Kevin Flory, president of the Kansas State Firefighters Association.

Biles said Kansas had been interested in the compact since it was approved through national legislation in 2007 but had been waiting for Nebraska to join so there would be an adjoining state involved. Kansas legislation was introduced in January 2015 to enroll in the compact, he said. But a hearing of the Natural Resources committee in February that month was canceled because of a snowstorm and never rescheduled.

“We tried our best to get it in the hearings in 2016, but it wasn’t regarded as priority legislation,” he said. “We would not have had it in time for the Anderson Creek fire had it come up in ’16, but it would have been available this year. That didn’t happen.”

Without the compact, states can still request help from other states in emergency situations, but the compact speeds things up, Biles said.

“Had we had the compact, we probably could have gotten a good cadre of skilled people a day earlier than we did without having the compact,” he said.

This article was originally published on the Topeka Capital-Journal website, here.