CARSON CITY, Nev. " Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, told state forestry officials Friday that closing the Tonopah Conservation Camp would make next summer's wildfires bigger, faster growing and farther away from the crews that fight them.
Assemblyman Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, also protested the plan to shutter the camp and move inmate fire crews to Three Lakes Camp 30 miles north of Las Vegas.
"If you take those away, it's going to take a long time to get from Three Lakes to Austin," he said adding that would be more than four hours to respond to a fire.
He said those inmates will still be in the prison system.
"It's a case of where those inmates are going to do the most good and clearly that is in central Nevada."
And Assemblywoman Kathy McClain, D-Las Vegas, questioned what will happen between July and the following April when Three Lakes is scheduled to have space for those Tonopah inmates. She pointed out there is a 10 month gap there when those inmate crews apparently won't be available anywhere.
The discussion came up during review of the Nevada Division of Forestry budget. State Forester Pete Anderson isn't in control of what happens to those conservation camps. It was the Department of Corrections decision to save nearly $750,000 by shutting the Tonopah camp down. The six fire crews, consisting of 79 inmates, would transfer to the Las Vegas camp.
But it leaves hundreds of thousands of acres several hours farther away from help.
Bob Hadfield, former director of the Nevada Association of Counties, said those inmates are "the people who stop (fires) from turning into a catastrophe."
"This does not make any sense," he said.
Leslie agreed with him, asking whether he and the others had any discussions with the governor's office over the impact of eliminating the Tonopah camp. The answer from Hadfield as well as local officials and citizens from the Tonopah area was uniformly no.
"The governor and I have not had an opportunity to talk," said Hadfield. "We're not on speaking terms."
"Ditto," said Nye Commission Chairman Joni Eastley.
"It seems like every session we desperately try to hang on to what we've got," she said.
She said those inmate crews provide many services beyond just fighting wildfires.
Douglas Baker, district road supervisor, said they patch roads, clean up at the landfills in the area, cut weeds and other services. He said he used 4,888 hours of inmate labor last year.
Round Mountain Fire Chief Dan Sweeny said those inmates also shovel snow for senior citizens, cut wood for them, help maintain water wells and the area's water system.
"These conservation crews do work we could not otherwise afford to," said Denise Nelson of the Tonopah Chamber of Commerce. "We would just be lost without them."
He said inmate crews did for about $85,000, work projects that would have cost some $230,000, prompting Assemblyman Joe Hogan, D-Las Vegas, to point out that is a $150,000 savings " one third of the total shutting the camp would save " in just one small community.
"I agree with you," Leslie told Hadfield. "This does not make any sense."
She said restoring funding for the Tonopah camp should be among the top priorities for lawmakers in amending Gov. Jim gibbons' proposed budget.