Politics & Government

State audit will compare Kansas wildfire response with other states

State auditors will investigate how Kansas’s system to fight wildfires compares to others after massive fires this spring caused tens of millions of dollars in damage.

Kansas has among the smallest budgets to fight wildfires in the country – about $300,000 – and state fire officials have said coordination of firefighting resources has been lacking.

Lawmakers on Monday approved an examination of the state’s wildfire fighting system. Auditors will begin their investigation in January.

“The bottom line is the last two years we’ve lost in excess of $100 million in property in Kansas and we’re spending maybe $300,000 in state money to try and prevent these losses and it’s not making it better,” said Rep. John Carmichael, D- Wichita.

Carmichael proposed the audit along with a handful of other lawmakers. He said the goal is not to find fault, but to compare the financial and logistical resources used by other states with Kansas. In turn, the Legislature will be able to better determine whether Kansas should make changes or continue with its current practices.

Legislative researchers estimated the Starbuck wildfire this spring caused an agricultural loss between $44 million and $52 million. Appraisers in Clark and Reno counties estimated their counties lost $1.4 million and $1.2 million, respectively, in appraised value because of the fire.

Kansas struggled to fight the fires over the past two years in part because it relies on volunteer firefighters, which make up 90 percent of the firefighters in the state. With such a small wildfire budget, the state didn’t have additional resources to send the departments, which are often small and have lean budgets.

“Meanwhile, as rural population diminishes, the base from which volunteer firefighters are recruited also declines. To the south, Oklahoma spends 10 times the money on wildfire suppression, employing 80 firefighters, 47 engines, 47 bulldozers, airplanes, and helicopters along with fire management and logistical teams,” Carmichael said.

In proposing the audit, Carmichael cited several stories by The Eagle on the state’s response to wildfires. One focused on Oklahoma’s fire response system. The state directly south of Kansas has a firefighting budget of about $15 million.

George Geissler, director of the Oklahoma Forest Service, previously told The Eagle that if Kansas increased the number of Kansas Forest Service staff responsible for coordinating wildfire response from four to between eight and 20, it could respond more effectively to dangerous wildfires.

The Legislative Post Audit Committee approved the audit unanimously, voting to effectively fast track it by delaying a previously scheduled audit on the operation of public schools.

Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, sits on the committee. He said he was glad to see the audit receive approval to begin in January.

“When you look at maybe what we do with what others states do, we certainly, it appears, could be behind,” Hawkins said.

“With the magnitude of the damage and severity of the financial implications, you would think that would really shove it to the top and it essentially did.”

Contributing: Oliver Morrison of The Eagle

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

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