Wildfires, security top Western Governor's meeting

States have called for the federal government to classify severe wildfires as natural disasters for funding purposes.

By Ken Ritter 
The Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — The budget-busting cost of fighting wildfires was one burning issue that governors of four Western states were considering during a twice-yearly meeting Friday in Las Vegas, along with unexpected effects of recently adopted land-use restrictions imposed to protect the greater sage grouse.

But just days after a mass shooting in nearby Southern California, the governors of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Nevada were asked Friday about security, immigration and guns as Western Governors' Association winter meetings opened at the Four Seasons resort.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, association chairman, called security the No. 1 priority for governors of every state, not just the 19 members of the association, also including Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Washington.

"You can't think of security of any individual state without thinking of the security of the country as a whole," Mead said, adding that he said he expected the larger National Governors Association would address the issue.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval offered prayers and condolences to people affected by the Wednesday shooting that killed 14 people and wounded 21 at a holiday event at a government office in San Bernardino.

"A massacre of that magnitude is something none of us can conceive of or understand," Sandoval said.

The Republican Nevada governor pointed to preparations for New Year's Eve events including fireworks expected to draw up to 350,000 people to the Las Vegas Strip. He said 1,500 law enforcement officials and the National Guard will be involved.

"We have to be extremely vigilant how we protect our visitors (and) how we protect our residents," Sandoval said.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell was expected to focus during a keynote speech on conservation, natural resource development and wildfires.

"With the devastation we saw in so many of our Western states last summer," Montana Gov. Steve Bullock told reporters earlier, "it's important for us to take some time to evaluate how states and the federal government responded to these crises, and apply lessons learned."

Officials say the cost of fighting wildfires has exploded from about 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service budget in the mid-1990s, to more than half the agency budget in recent drought-stricken years. Fires this year in Washington state and California were among the worst on record.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter noted the so-called Soda Fire burned nearly 450 square miles this year in the southwest of his state.

Robert Bonnie, a U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary, said last month in Wyoming that other projects are disrupted or deferred as a result.

States have called for the federal government to classify severe wildfires as natural disasters for funding purposes.

Bonnie was scheduled to address wildfire resource issues during a Friday conference session.

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