The approach to wildfire suppression in Kansas suffers from leadership fragmentation and the lack of financial resources and personnel to effectively coordinate response to massive blazes churning across the prairie, a legislative audit said Wednesday.
The examination was ordered after Kansas suffered record wildfires in 2016 and 2017 that burned a total of 800,000 acres, caused $80 million in damage, destroyed 6,000 miles of fencing, and killed one person and about 5,000 cattle.
Andy Brienzo, an auditor with the Kansas Legislature's auditing division, said the state's program to control wildfires generally fell short of centralized operations in Texas and three other states. He said Kansas' operation was inadequate to meet demand for emergency services, and this shortfall meant local government was compelled to absorb more of the cost than in comparable states.
"What you're telling me is we have no chain of command? Nobody that's actually in charge of a huge wildfire?" said Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene.
The report said state investment in wildfire suppression in North Dakota equated to $30.89 per square mile. In Oklahoma, that figure was $87.19 per square mile. South Dakota invested $19.20 per square mile. In Kansas, the amount stood at $4.50 for each square mile.
"It's very clear we have the poorest funded wildfire suppression system in the nation," said Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita. "The governor needs to put an end to the finger-pointing."
In Kansas, wildfire suppression rests initially on local government. Those officials can call for help from regional peers and, if necessary, three state agencies. State-level work is shared by the Kansas Department of Emergency Management, operated by the state's adjutant general; the State Fire Marshal's Office; and the Kansas Forest Service.
Auditors told House and Senate members the state's structure for grappling with wildfires struggled to work collaboratively. The Kansas system conflicts with centrally organized operations in other Great Plains states, auditors said.
The state fire marshal — the state’s starting point for managing local requests for assistance in prairie fires — lacks expertise specific to combating non-structure fires and owns no firefighting suppression equipment. At the same time, the state agency with tactical knowledge of wildfires — the forest service — possesses limited ability to spend money to effectively deploy equipment and train personnel, auditors said.
"State and local officials reported Kansas firefighters do not receive adequate wildfire-specific training and sometimes do not know how to suppress wildfires," the audit said.
In addition, the audit said, ineffective relationships among local and state entities hindered wildfire response. One local fire chief told auditors he didn't perceive the state's fire marshal and emergency management officials as fire experts and was "reluctant to trust them." Other local officials said friction with the forest service delayed reaction to a 2016 fire.
Auditors recommended the Legislature select a single entity to independently lead the state's wildfire reaction force and to appropriate money to make certain the chosen leadership agency deployed sufficient firefighting equipment, certified firefighters and management personnel. The auditors didn't recommend which agency should take the lead in collaboration with local government.
The report also said the Legislature should amend Kansas law to require the fire marshal's office to mandate that local fire districts document wildfires in a centralized fire incident reporting system.
Kansas Forest Service director Larry Biles urged lawmakers to dedicate money to training of 13,500 firefighters in nearly 500 fire districts across the state. The State Fire Marshal's Office and the Department of Emergency Management endorsed greater state aid to the forest service.
The forest service should have direct access to the state's emergency fund rather than rely on a layered permission process that "hasn't proven an effective way to manage emergencies," Biles said. Currently, the Department of Emergency Management has control of that fund.
Kansas National Guard Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, who runs the Department of Emergency Management, said he opposed a shift to a centralized wildfire agency and objected to sharing management of the state emergency fund. He dismissed the primary conclusion of auditors.
"This approach does not lend to a 'fragmented' structure as stated by the report," Tafanelli said.
He proposed the state create a wildfire firefighting capability in the Kansas Guard. In the past, Kansas Guard helicopters have been used to drop water on fires.
Doug Jorgensen, state fire marshal, questioned auditors' reliance on a fire map compiled by the University of Nebraska. He also challenged a Texas A&M report from 2017 indicating Kansas' system for suppressing wildfires had insufficient resources and training.
Jorgensen said work occurred this year to better explain to local emergency officials how to obtain outside assistance during wildfires. The state hasn't had a record-breaking fire in 2018, he said.
"It is clear these three agencies are not on the same page," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. "This audit is very revealing in terms of the lack of coordination of these agencies."
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