The wildfire suppression system in Kansas suffers from leadership fragmentation and the lack of financial resources and personnel to effectively coordinate responses by state and local agencies to windswept blazes churning through dry grasslands, a legislative audit said Wednesday.
The audit was ordered after Kansas suffered through record wildfires in 2016 and 2017 that burned more than 800,000 acres, caused $80 million in damage, destroyed 6,000 miles of fencing, killed one person and about 5,000 cattle.
Andy Brienzo, an auditor with the Kansas Legislature’s auditing division, said the state’s approach to wildfire suppression fell short of operations in Texas and other states. He said Kansas’ operation was inadequate to meet the demand for services.
“We found, overall, it is not,” he said.
In Kansas, wildfires are first the responsibility of local units of government. Those officials can call upon three state agencies -- the Kansas Department of Emergency Management, operated by the state’s adjutant general; the Office of the State Fire Marshal; and the Kansas Forest Service.
State auditors informed a legislative committee of House and Senate members the state-level structure for grappling with wildfires was scattered over three agencies that struggled to work collaboratively. The Kansas system conflicts with centrally organized operations in other Great Plains states.
The state’s designated primary agency lacks expertise specific to combating wildfires, while the state agency with the know-how has been relegated to a limited role in combating wildfires and possesses few financial resources for the job, auditors said.
In addition, ineffective working relationships among the entities responsible for wildfire suppression and incomplete management data further hinder adequate wildfire suppression activities.
The audit said Kansas’ limited wildfire suppression training and mitigation programs fail to sufficiently prepare local volunteer firefighting organizations for wildfire response.
Auditors recommended the Kansas Legislature designate a single state entity to independently lead the state’s wildfire response activities and appropriate the money to make certain the state can deploy sufficient firefighting equipment, certified firefighters and wildfire management personnel.
The report also said the Legislature should amend Kansas law to require the State Fire Marshal’s office to mandate local fire districts report wildfires to the state’s fire incident reporting system.