Nebraska needs to step up its efforts to prevent and fight wildfires in the aftermath of last year’s record-setting fires, the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee heard Friday.
Last year, nearly 500,000 acres burned in Nebraska, nearly twice the previous record. There were large fires in the northwest and north central parts of the state. And with high temperatures, continuing drought, and the spread of highly flammable eastern red cedar trees to an additional 38,000 to 40,0000 acres per year, State Forester Scott Josiah says the danger is spreading as well. "This is no longer a Pine Ridge or a Niobrara Valley problem. This is a statewide problem," he said.
To combat the problem, Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis has introduced a bill that would spend nearly $3.5 million over the next two years. Almost half that would be spent to station an aerial tanker near Chadron, and another near Valentine. Other funds would go to increase efforts to thin forests and remove fuel, as well as to expand training, acquire additional equipment, and help rehabilitate land.
Among those supporting the proposal was Ainsworth Fire Chief Brad Fiala. Testifying by telephone, Fiala said the canyonlands that burned along the Niobrara last year were just a fraction of what could burn. "If we have another lightening storm go through, and another drought, there’s no way the surrounding departments here can handle it by themselves. We do have to ask for air support to manage those fires," he said.
Davis said the problem is so serious that legislation needs to be passed this year. And he said he would offer an emergency clause, which would make it effective immediately on passage. No one testified against the bill.
Senators also opened debate on a proposal designed to limit the costs of obtaining public records. Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery, chairman of the Government Committee, said he’d received complaints from people about the high cost they were charged for public records. Among other provisions, his bill would prohibit charging people for the first six hours of staff time required to search, identify or copy records.
Avery said his bill flows from a basic principle. "Public records are owned by the people. The public entities that manage and control those records are the custodians, not the owners. We are the owners. They are the custodians," he declared.
Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids said the limitation on charging for time could hurt rural counties with small staffs. "When you’ve got a county office that has one individual, maybe two at the most, and you’re asking them for six hours of work before they start charging, that’s nearly a whole day of work," she explained. "And depending upon the number of requests that come in, suddenly they’ve got a backlog that they may be having to work in the evening or the weekend to arrive at the fulfillment of that request."
The Legislature adjourned for the day without reaching a vote on the bill.
Lawmakers also introduced a resolution honoring former Sen. Ardyce Bohlke of Hastings, who died Thursday at age 69. Bohlke served from 1991-2001 and chaired the Education Committee. She helped create incentives for school districts to merge or consolidate, worked to implement welfare reform, and helped change the law to give young people drivers licenses more gradually. She later served as a member of the NET Foundations’ board of directors.