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Kansas Audit: Lack of Resources, Coordination Hampers Effort to Fight Wildfires

State Forester Larry Biles speaking to lawmakers Tuesday. (Photo by Stephen Koranda)

A legislative audit released Tuesday concluded that while wildfires in Kansas are becoming more frequent, a lack of resources and coordination are hampering the state’s ability to fight them.

Firefighting duties and resources are spread across three separate agencies, which auditors say is complicating wildfire response and coordination between state and local officials.

The Kansas Fire Marshal’s Office is the lead agency for wildfire response, but it has no firefighting resources. Those resources are held by the state Forest Service, which doesn’t have enough funding to deploy the equipment. The Division of Emergency Management also serves a supporting role.

The state agencies join firefighting efforts when they’re requested by local officials.

“Local jurisdictions do not always know when to call for state assistance, what resources are available through the state or how the state wildfire suppression system is supposed to work,” the report said.

It’s a similar situation when it comes to training 13,000 local firefighters, the audit found. The Forest Service has the expertise, but not enough funding to provide adequate training.

Republican Rep. Melissa Rooker, one of the lawmakers who requested the audit, said she wasn’t surprised by the results.

“We have a lot of work to do. I think the most significant thing we can do is provide (funding),” she said. “It won’t take a lot of funding. A million dollars more would make a significant difference.”

The audit said Kansas spends less per square mile on preparedness and fighting wildfires than other Great Plains states. Kansas spends $4.50 per square mile while, at the low end of the regional range, South Dakota spends $19.20 per square mile and Texas, at the high end, spends $144.83 per square mile.

More dollars would be used to boost staff, equipment and especially training, said State Forester Larry Biles.

“At this point, we’ve got the equivalent of one full-time (teacher) trying to serve 13,000 students,” he said.

If the agency receives more funding, Biles said they would hire more staff for teaching and establish regional offices that can more easily coordinate with local agencies.

“If we’re going to be responsive to the wildfire challenges,” he says, “additional staff will make a great deal of difference.”

Kansas Fire Marshal Doug Jorgensen agrees more funding is needed, but he is pushing back on some of the details.

Jorgensen says the audit overcounts the number of fires in recent years, making the situation appear worse than it really is. He says the audit relied on a study using satellite fire tracking and that study didn’t differentiate between wildfires and purposeful fires like controlled burns.

While some large recent fires have led to a hundreds of thousands of acres burned, the state fire marshal says responders have had fewer to deal with.

“Overall, actual fires have decreased in the last three or four years,” Jorgensen said.

And he said recent recent improvements to training and communication aren’t reflected in the audit.

“There wasn’t anything in the report about the improvements that we’ve made and how we lessened the amount of fires and the length of fires this year,” he said.

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