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Governors prepared to do more to fight wildfires

LAS VEGAS -- Governors from several Western states told federal officials on Thursday they are prepared to take on more responsibility for fighting wildfires.

During the annual winter meeting of the Western Governors Association on Thursday, state leaders told officials from the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Agriculture that they recognize times are tight and that they plan to spend more of their own resources fighting fires in their states.

The association includes governors from 19 states in the West, as well as Guam and American Samoa, but only a handful of leaders attended the conference. They were John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Brian Sandoval of Nevada, C.L. ``Butch'' Otter of Idaho, Steve Bullock of Montana, Gary Herbert of Utah and Matt Mead of Wyoming.

``This is not just a federal issue, it's a state issue, and the states need to be involved heavily in it, not just in policy but in terms of financial support,'' said Mead. ``We're willing to try new things. That's what states are good at. Not that we can't mess them up, but we can fix them when they do.''

Hickenlooper said he recognizes the number of available firefighting planes is on the decline. He said he was interested in building a fleet of aerial support resources in Colorado.

Hickenlooper added that the state is considering taking other local measures, including mandating that buildings use fire-resistant materials, and requiring property owners to disclose wildfire risks to potential buyers the same way they must disclose flood risks.

``At a certain point we are going to have to do things differently. We cannot continue to spend the kind of money and take the kind of losses that we have over the past years,'' he said.

The association, established in 1984, aims to help state leaders share ideas, concerns and approaches to dealing with issues unique to the West.

The federal officials seemed caught off-guard by the governors' offer to give more of their states' resources to fighting wildfires.

Agriculture Undersecretary Robert Bonnie and Neil Kornze, who is awaiting confirmation to head the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, thanked the governors for their promised cooperation.

Kornze explained that when federal officials are forced to choose between protecting a property or saving important habitat, like the brush where the sage grouse live, they must choose the homes over the animals. He called on states to help ensure that there are fewer homes likely to burn each year.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval was alone in making an outright plea for federal firefighting resources. He said the Silver State should be entitled to more federal attention because it is home to more federal lands.

His fellow governors groaned and shook their heads, and Otter joked that someone should shut off the Nevada governor's microphone.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell delivered a keynote address Thursday highlighting the federal government's commitment to collaborating on conservation and land management issues.

She told an audience of officials that climate change is real, and seen most clearly in the West.

``You see it here in the west around fires, around floods,'' she said.

In addition to wildfire management, the governors discussed water rights issues, conservation strategies and approaches to land development during the two-day meeting in Las Vegas.

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Hannah Dreier can be reached at http://twitter.com/hannahdreier

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