Political blaze smolders with mountain fire service changes

It was a Tuesday morning set aside for proclamations and political praise, handshakes and hearty pats on the back at the Clark County Commission.

The recipients of all the official affection represented the more than 1,400 firefighters and other responders to July’s Carpenter 1 Fire, which burned nearly 28,000 acres in the Spring Mountains and threatened dozens of homes in Kyle Canyon.

The fire is out. Residents are back in their homes, and the usual throngs of visitors are starting to return to the mountains.

On Tuesday, the only clear and present danger was the possibility of being buried under all those proclamations in a ceremony led by County Commissioner Larry Brown, whose district includes Kyle Canyon.

But a political blaze is smoldering on the mountain as the Nevada Division of Forestry moves forward with its plan to cut its responsibilities in the Mount Charleston area. NDF Station 1 is slated to drastically reduce its service in the community after June 30, 2015, transferring the full duty of handling structure fires and emergency calls for vehicle accidents to the Clark County Fire Department.

Although some have attempted to portray this as a cost-saving measure on the state’s part, it isn’t that. The county already picks up the tab for its end of Station 1’s callouts. That station is staffed by highly qualified first responders, many of whom have vast experience with mountain rescue and wild-land firefighting as well as paramedic skills.

The change is part of a redefining of the NDF’s mission from a multiservice outfit into a state agency that primarily focuses on fighting wild-land fire. As NDF spokeswoman JoAnn Kittrell put it earlier this year, “It’s not so much a budget cut as a realignment or a restructuring. It’s moving a lot of NDF divisions away from all-risk services and toward wildfire.”

Retooling the station and redefining its mission sound like streamlining, but only for the NDF. The change substantially complicates the role the Clark County Fire Department will eventually be compelled to play on the mountain. At present, the department relies in large part on members of the Mount Charleston Volunteer Fire Department, a group of trained area residents who donate their time. (Readers of this column know I am a Kyle Canyon resident who in recent years volunteered with the department.)

The cost to Clark County in the form of a new fire station and paid personnel promises to be substantial. But state officials who have decided to go this route also figure to pay a hefty political price once it’s clear the cost to Clark County taxpayers will be measured in millions.

Although other counties have made the transition away from NDF all-risk service, Kyle Canyon is undeniably different. It’s not just a small town, or a few neighborhoods. The area has just a few hundred residents, but it attracts more than 2 million visitors each year. That’s approximately the population of the state of New Mexico.

It’s not as simple as closing Mayberry’s fire department.

“The priority for us is, we’d like to help them maintain the services they already have,” Clark County Fire Chief Bertral Washington said after Tuesday morning’s commission ceremony. “It’s a really good working relationship that exists up there now. However, once the state leaves, it won’t be the same. So we’re trying to find a way that we can have a plan ready to go.”

That plan is already being framed, he said, but he admits the issue is complex.

“We don’t control all aspects of this, but we will put together the absolute best options that we can within the resources that are available to us,” Washington said.

The chief and Commissioner Brown know it’s not a small-town political problem — not in an area that draws 2 million visitors a year.

The approaching changes in fire responsibility in Kyle Canyon hold the potential to reverberate from the Spring Mountains all the way to the sunny streets of Carson City.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.