Nevada lawmakers weigh fire-fighting coordination, liability

Nevada lawmakers weigh fire-fighting coordination, liability

By SAM METZ AP / Report for America

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Nevada lawmakers on Wednesday heard three proposals about changing liability laws and helping fire-fighting agencies coordinate their responses.

As fire seasons become longer and more dangerous, the Legislature is one of many throughout the U.S. West that is considering new policies to prepare for and respond to large-scale wildfires.

“If Nevada is going to get ahead of the catastrophic loss of property, lives, infrastructure and ecosystems resulting from wildland fire, all four areas must become the focus of work,” said Nevada State Forester and Firewarden Kacey KC.

Each of the three proposals heard on Wednesday originated in an interim committee made up of lawmakers who discuss wildfire policy when Nevada’s part-time Legislature is not in session. The proposals cleared the Assembly earlier in April and have to be passed by two committees and the entire state Senate before reaching Gov. Steve Sisolak for consideration.

In 2020, a record 58,250 wildfires blanketed 16,000 square miles (42,000 square kilometers) of land throughout the United States, causing more than 40 deaths and tens of billions of dollars worth of property damage. More frequent and more intense wildfires have forced states to allocate additional funding toward fire-fighting and prevention and reconsider laws about insurance and liability.

Federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service oversee 80.1% of Nevada. Kacey KC said multiple agencies — local, state and federal — often jointly respond to large-scale fires.

On Wednesday, she spoke in support of proposals to add provisions into Nevada law to allow public-private partnerships for fire management projects and to formalize the state’s existing Wildland Fire Protection Program to better facilitate interagency cooperation during fire season and beforehand, while communities are preparing to minimize its extent.

After the pandemic wreaked havoc on Nevada’s budget, the interim committee recommended public-private partnerships as a way to bolster Nevada’s prevention efforts without siphoning away fire-fighting funds.

The proposal would also authorize Nevada Insurance Commissioner Barbara Richardson to create a program to incentivize property owners to implement fire-safety measures like covering vents, using fire-resistant roofing and maintaining space between buildings and vegetation to prevent flames from spreading.

Richardson said the proposal could allow Nevada to create a program modeled after California’s “home hardening” incentives, but her department worried about the effectiveness of targeting individuals for incentives, because fires often ignite in a community’s most flammable areas.

Another proposal, if passed, would change liability laws that require human life to be endangered by wildfires for local agencies to recoup costs. Under the proposal, local governments and agencies could sue arsonists who “willfully or negligibly” cause fires, to recover costs and repair damage. The proposal creates exceptions from liability to protect ranchers branding cattle and people who start fires to save someone’s life.

“We know that, in our state, about 80% of wildfires are human-caused in one way or another. In some of those, they’re accidents; some of them are intentional, and some of them are so stupid they should not be called accidents,” said Northern Nevada-based arson investigator Terry Taylor.

Taylor said the intent of the bill was to ensure taxpayers didn’t bear the costs of wildfires started by arsonists. Even after investigators determine a person or group may have started a fire, he said, district attorneys often are limited in how they can seek damages.

Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.