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Kansas Forest Service, fire officials say state’s wildfire suppression capabilities inadequate

An audit of state agency responses to two recent wildfires in Kansas showed that the state’s wildfire suppression training and mitigation programs do not sufficiently prepare the state for wildfire response, according to Kansas State Forester, Larry Biles and Fire Management Officer, Mark Neely. They spoke before the state’s legislative budget committee on Oct. 3 in Topeka.

“We are encouraged to see the legislature focus on what is the state’s most rapidly growing hazards – wildfires,” said Biles.

Biles and Neely provided a review of the opinion from the Kansas Forest Service and KFS Advisory Council on the Legislative Post Audit on wildfire suppression in the state.

The LPA was conducted in response to the Anderson Creek and Starbuck wildfires – the two largest fires in the last 50 years which caused significant damage in several counties.

The LPA sought to answer one central question: “Is Kansas’ wildfire suppression system adequately designed and resourced to effectively suppress wildfires?” The finding of the LPA was no, Kansas wildfire suppression training and mitigation programs do not sufficiently prepare the state for wildfire response.

“We believe the audit describes the inadequacies of a wildfire suppression system at the state level,” said Neely.

State agencies are deployed to wildfires when the fire has exceeded the ability and resources at a local fire response level.

“KFS believes it is important to point out that the LPA is not a judgement on the ability of locals to suppress wildfires, it is an evaluation on the state level response, once a wildfire has exceeded the ability and resources at the local level,” Neely said.

“Local fire authorities possess the skills and knowledge to effectively handle the majority of fires in our state. We can provide additional support and training for the instances when a wildfire surpasses the response ability at a local level,” he added.

One recommendation of the LPA was to amend state law to designate a single entity to lead the state’s wildfire suppression system. The LPA stated that the state should ensure the entity has sufficient firefighting equipment, certified firefighters and wildfire management personnel, and state funding to effectively and independently lead the state’s wildfire suppression system.

In response to the LPA, Biles said that, “KFS has the expertise, qualifications, and experience to provide assistance and high-quality training to firefighters, emergency managers and local authorities. Additionally, it is our goal to continue fuel reduction projects and promote prescribed burning benefits.”

In his address to the legislative budget committee, Biles proposed that KFS should be designated as the lead agency of wildfire suppression in the state.

“We recognize that many stakeholders will continue to be involved with wildland fire management and KFS looks forward to working alongside those agencies to provide an effective and efficient wildland fire suppression system in Kansas,” Biles said

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