The Smokey Fire burns in Banner County, Neb., in October 2022. (Courtesy of Slim Reece/Harrison Volunteer Fire Department)

This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.

LINCOLN — A legislative bill would create two state wildfire response teams to help the hundreds of local volunteer and paid firefighters who fight Nebraska’s rising number of grassland, ag land and forest fires.

But the bill’s hearing Thursday was dogged by questions over whether the state should hire its own wildfire response teams or whether the teams should seek local volunteers.

Nebraska Army National Guard aviators drop water on a hot spot if the Road 739 fire near Arapahoe, Neb., in April 2022. (Courtesy of the Nebraska National Guard)

Legislative Bill 655 by State Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha would spend $1.125 million a year in state funds to unlock about $3 million a year in federal grant funds.

The state money would be funneled through the State Fire Marshal’s Office and Nebraska Forest Service. The federal share would be sought through a Community Wildfire Defense grant.

McDonnell told the Government and Military Affairs Committee that LB 655’s fiscal note missed his intent when it indicated 23 full-time state employees would be hired to fight wildfires. The bill does not specify the size of the state teams.

“That fiscal note is not accurate,” he said.

His goal, he said, is to model the response teams after the volunteer Urban Search and Rescue Teams hosted by Lincoln Fire & Rescue that respond to national disasters.

The local USAR team has sent members of fire departments from Nebraska to New York and Washington, D.C., after the Sept. 11 attacks, and to Oklahoma City after the 1995 bombing.

McDonnell’s aim with the bill, he said, is for the state teams to include, for example, a paid firefighter from Omaha and a volunteer firefighter from Scottsbluff. Members of the state wildfire team would be loaned out by their local departments as needed. Paid departments would use other firefighters to cover the shifts of team members while they were deployed. 

“Our thought was how do we do this and how do we look at USAR possibly … where we can backfill, where we don’t hire people, but we have those people ready to go,” McDonnell said. “It would be paid and volunteer firefighters working together to be able to respond.”

The bill drew clear support from the Nebraska State Volunteer Firefighters Association, with Jerry Stilmock testifying that local departments could use the specialized help.

State Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha
(Courtesy of the Unicameral Information Office)

Many of the state’s agricultural interests backed the bill, especially the language saying the new teams would help local fire departments manage controlled burns of invasive red cedar trees, which fuel wildfires.

The state already spends about $20 million a year to mechanically remove red cedar trees, he said. The controlled burns would help and give the state teams a chance to train together.

Last year was the second-worst year for Nebraska wildfires on record, with 200,000 acres burned. It is second only to 2012, when 500,000 acres burned. The fires cause tens of millions of dollars in property damage each year. 

State Sen. Tom Brewer, the committee chairman, said having a state team to coordinate the multi-agency and multi-state responses to massive fires like what happened at Nebraska National Forest in Halsey last fall could make a difference. 

Communication while fighting that fire was difficult, Brewer said. During the fight, a volunteer firefighter from Purdum died from a medical condition. The new teams could help those efforts get organized more quickly, he said.

Under the proposal, the state could use the funds to obtain specialized firefighting equipment. A separate bill would address first-responder radios.

In response to a question from State Sen. John Lowe of Kearney, McDonnell confirmed that fire departments already have help from mutual aid agreements. But, he said, the state under his bill would be sending in “some real ass-kickers.”

Only one person testified against the bill Thursday. But it was Interim State Fire Marshal Doug Hohbein, who said his agency’s duties do not include actively fighting fires.

National Guard Airmen from the Nebraska Air National Guard’s 155th Air Refueling Wing fire department cut a fire break to slow the Road 739 fire near Arapahoe, Neb., in April 2022. (Courtesy of Nebraska National Guard)

He argued that LB 655, as written, would require 23 hires that would change the role and scope of the State Fire Marshal’s Office, which is known for investigating suspicious fires. He said Gov. Jim Pillen opposes the bill. 

However, he said, if McDonnell is interested, as he said Thursday, in designing the state wildland firefighting teams as volunteers from around the state, there might be a way forward.

Pillen’s office had no immediate comment.

State Sen. Jane Raybould of Lincoln asked McDonnell how she was supposed to read a bill that seemed to be advocating 23 hires, when McDonnell said that wasn’t his intention.

He agreed to double check whether or not the federal grant program would require the state wildfire teams to be state employees.

McDonnell stressed that he had worked on the bill with Shane Hunter, Pillen’s first appointee as fire marshal, before Hunter got sick and resigned.

McDonnell said he would work with Hunter’s replacement, newly appointed Fire Marshall Scott Cordes, and clarify that the state funding is meant to help the state create two wildland firefighting teams using local firefighters and plan for the most effective ways to rapidly respond to local and regional calls for assistance.

“Knowing that you have that kind of backup, that (local) fire chief could let people know early enough that they can get moving,” McDonnell said. 

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