Reid Briefed on Nevada Fire Preparedness

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RENO, Nev. (AP) - From Lake Tahoe to Nevada's vast rangelands, agencies and communities are joining together to reduce the risk of
catastrophic wildfires that have taken an alarming toll in recent years on ranching operations and wildlife habitat alike, Sen. Harry Reid was told Thursday.

About two dozen representatives from various state, local and federal agencies and organizations attended the hour-long session arranged by the Democratic Senate majority leader to discuss progress, fears and challenges for this year's fire season.

While hundreds of fires burn in California, Nevada so far this year generally has been spared the flames, if not smoke drifting from its neighbor to the west.

But past experience has shown Nevada is one lightning strike away from the kind of catastrophic blazes that have become all too common in recent years.

"We're faced with some huge challenges," State Forester Pete Anderson said.

While agencies and communities have been doing "fantastic work," one big concern is the loss of rangeland, he said.

"We're losing just under 1 million acres of rangeland a year," Anderson said. "It's just a monumental problem."

In addition to the harm to grazing lands, wildlife officials say the fires are destroying prime habitat for birds and animals like the sage grouse, which currently is being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Of the 22 million acres of sage grouse habitat that existed in Nevada in 1999, nearly 3 million acres has burned, according to the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

Anderson said agencies, including the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, have been working with ranchers - often the first
witnesses to fires when they start in outlying areas - to outfit them with radios and protective gear, essentially making them first responders in the outback.

"Last year was phenomenally destructive," agreed Joe Guild of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association. More than 900,000 acres burned in Nevada last year. That's 1,400 square miles, an area nearly the size of the whole state of Rhode Island.

Guild said he was encouraged that cheat grass, an invasive weed that helps spread fires, doesn't seem as prevalent in some areas this year because of a chilly spring.

"It may not be as catastrophic this year," he said.

Still, he said, ranchers take the threat to heart.

"We're ready, senator," Guild said. "Many ranchers are ready. We've got our guys trained."

Afterward, Guild said at his sheep operations, large tanker trucks used to haul water to the animals in winter are filled and gassed up, and workers have been fire trained by the BLM.

Reid said the federal government has authorized or appropriated about $500 million for prevention and rehabilitation efforts, ranging from plans for a seed warehouse in White Pine County to fuel reduction projects at Tahoe and grant money for ranchers to build fire breaks.

Reid, who helped bring national attention to Lake Tahoe by orchestrating the first presidential forum on the basin's fragile ecosystem in 1997, said Tahoe remains one of his biggest concerns.

Last June, the Angora fire on the California side burned more than 3,000 acres and destroyed 254 homes.

State and federal forest and conservation officials, as well as chiefs of local fire protection districts, said since then, a concerted push has been made to reduce fuel loads in neighborhoods.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)