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Elko County firefighters assist in California

ELKO — A fire truck and three firefighters from the Elko County Fire Protection District responded to California’s call to fight December wildfires in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, and the team spent 16 days in the neighboring state fighting blazes.

Training Capt. Mike Abrams, Spring Creek Capt. Gary Davis and firefighter Jeremy Kizer were deployed Dec. 6 to join a strike team consisting of five engines and two command trucks and personnel from Elko’s Nevada Division of Forestry in Elko, and the Storey, Reno and Truckee Meadows fire departments.

“The team, they were awesome. A lot of us knew each other, worked around each other, in the past so the team gelled really fast,” Abrams said, explaining that the combination of rural and urban firefighting experience was beneficial to the situation. “We all had something to bring to the table.”

Abrams, along with Elko County Fire Protection District Administrator Linda Bingaman, presented a summary of their assistance efforts during the Jan. 3 Elko County Commissioners’ meeting, and the commissioners thanked them for their service.

“I appreciate the fact that we were able to help out another area,” Bingaman said.

Upon arriving in California, the crew witnessed a plume of smoke rising into the air above wind turbines near Riverside and knew they had their work cut out for them. The team members, working 24-hour shifts, were assigned the jobs of evaluating homes in the path of the Creek Fire in Ventura County and attending any “hot spots” in the area.

The crew also assisted with the Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara County starting Dec. 11.

“When you’re in the urban interface fire and there are multimillion dollar homes being threatened, that’s pretty-eye opening,” Abrams said.

To protect the Montecito district — home to high-end houses owned by celebrities — about 8,400 firefighters, 1,000 engines, 74 dozers, 38 rotor-wing and 27 fixed-wing aircraft were assigned to the fire, Abrams reported. During one 24-hour period, 2.6 million gallons of water were put on the fire, which at times consumed the equivalent of a football-field-sized swath of land per second, he said.

“[I’ve] never been involved in something this big, so it was pretty impressive to walk into this,” Abrams said, describing the long lines of firefighting equipment and crews, the teamwork and the generosity of community members who offered coffee and meals.

The Thomas Fire started Dec. 4 and had burned 281,893 acres by Jan. 3, when it was 92 percent contained, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Partly because many structures have been built in canyons and on ridgetops where they are hard to protect from fire, Abrams explained, more than 1,000 structures were destroyed and 280 damaged. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

The Elko members of the strike team were demobilized on Dec. 19 and returned home the next day.

“It was a very good experience for me, and I think the other guys,” Abrams said. “The teams that were out there put in some good work.”

Two rural Nevada counties have some of the most export-dependent economies in the U.S.

Visit an alfalfa farm in central Nevada, and you will hear about China and Saudi Arabia.

The two countries are big buyers of Western hay. Last year, a Saudi dairy company picked up land in Arizona and California, the Associated Press reported. The farm grows hay that can then be shipped back to feed cattle in the parched Middle East nation. In recent years, China’s dairy demand has grown, and with it, the country has shown an increasing interest in Western hay.

The world is interconnected, and events on one part of the globe can often have ripple effects on local economies that export crops or minerals. Prices could slip. Prices could spike. This is a reality for several Nevada counties, where dominant industries include mining and agriculture. In fact, two Nevada counties — Eureka and Lander – are among the most export-dependent counties in the U.S., according to an analysis by Pew Research Center.

“It doesn’t surprise me that some of these rural areas are highly dependent on exports,” said Sheldon Mudd, executive director of the Northeastern Nevada Regional Development Authority.

The Trump administration has pledged to renegotiate free trade agreements, like NAFTA, and pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement with Asia. Pew’s analysis suggested that export-dependent counties, which tend to be in rural areas, could be most affected by changes to these agreements. Until the administration comes out with more specifics, Mudd said it will be difficult to tell how revised trade deals might affect rural Nevada.

“Until we see those details, we can guess all day long,” he said.

Still, Mudd emphasized the importance of diversifying rural economies that might be heavily dependent on one or two industries. It is important, he said, to hedge against market trends.

Pew’s analysis relied on data from the Brookings Institution. In its Export Monitor 2017 report, Brookings looked at exports as a percentage of county-level gross domestic product. The Brookings report also quantified exports by industry and how they have changed over time.

It’s all about mining

According to the Brookings data, about 39 percent of Eureka County’s GDP comes from an export-dependent industry. The central Nevada county, with a population of about 2,000, is one of the state’s least-populated counties. A closer look at the data shows that this is the result of mining and oil extraction in the area. It accounts for 98 percent of export-oriented activity.

Eureka County has several oil fields and metal mines, including gold and barite.

Other rural counties follow a similar trend. In fact, mining, oil and gas extraction as a collective industry account for the majority of export-oriented industrial activity in eight rural Nevada counties (Elko, Eureka, Humboldt, Lander, Mineral, Nye, Pershing and White Pine).

After Eureka County, the Pew analysis identified Lander County as another export-dependent county. About 27 percent of its GDP comes from export dependent industries, namely mining.

Lander County, like Eureka County, has several mines for metal and industrial materials. The industry as a whole accounts for about 92 percent of the county’s export-oriented activity.

In terms of raw dollar value, neither county ranks highest in the state for exports. With Las Vegas and Reno, Clark and Washoe counties export far more than Eureka or Lander in real dollars. But relative to GDP, exports (often from one industry) account for a larger share of the rural economies.

When it comes to mining, Mudd said changes in trade agreements might have less of an impact than normal market fluctuations. Compared to other parts of the U.S., Nevada is different in a few ways, he said. For one, much of what is exported are precious metals that haven’t been processed into a final good. Many of the proposed changes to free trade policies could have a bigger impact on manufactured goods and agriculture. In mining, the worry is more about price changes.

Central Nevada is a major producer of barite, and supply and demand plays a role in setting price. The price of barite, which is used in drilling, also tracks changes in oil and gas prices.

“In this region, people are more concerned about market prices,” Mudd said.

Nevada stands out in another way. When many people think of exports, they think of shipping out widgets or an agricultural product like corn. Metals are often exported for different reasons, Mudd said. In some cases, due to environmental laws, Nevada-mined metal like gold or copper might be exported out of the U.S. to be processed, only to be sent back to the U.S. to be sold.

Rural diversification

It’s important to stress that the data looks only at export-oriented industries. It gives a filtered picture through that lens, and it does not necessarily give a full picture of the local economies.

For instance, agriculture in Eureka County plays a role in balancing the local economy, even if mining accounts for more exports. In a presentation to the Legislature last year, a county official described it as the “social glue” that holds the region together through mining’s booms and busts.

But economic diversification is still crucial.

Mudd, who previously worked for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said that while urban areas have been able to diversify their economies, rural areas still have work to do.

“Things that work in urban areas don’t always work in rural areas,” he said.

Thomas Harris, director of University of Nevada’s Center for Economic Development, stressed that it was important to bring infrastructure upgrades, like high-speed internet, to these areas.

“Most of our new economy is based on that,” he said.

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Sessions ends federal policy that let legal pot flourish

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration threw the burgeoning movement to legalize marijuana into uncertainty Thursday as it lifted an Obama-era policy that kept federal authorities from cracking down on the pot trade in states where the drug is legal. Attorney General Jeff Sessions will now leave it up to federal prosecutors to decide what to do when state rules collide with federal drug law.

Sessions’ action, just three days after a legalization law went into effect in California, threatened the future of the young industry, created confusion in states where the drug is legal and outraged both marijuana advocates and some members of Congress, including Sessions’ fellow Republicans. Many conservatives are wary of what they see as federal intrusion in areas they believe must be left to the states.

Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who represents Colorado, one of eight states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use, said the change contradicts a pledge Sessions made to him before being confirmed as attorney general. Gardner promised to push legislation to protect marijuana sales, saying he was prepared “to take all steps necessary” to fight the change, including holding up the confirmation of Justice Department nominees. Another Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, called the announcement “disruptive” and “regrettable.”

Colorado’s U.S. attorney, Bob Troyer, said his office won’t change its approach to prosecution, despite Sessions’ guidance. Prosecutors there have always focused on marijuana crimes that “create the greatest safety threats” and will continue to be guided by that, Troyer said.

The largely hands-off approach to marijuana enforcement set forth by Barack Obama’s Justice Department allowed the pot business to flourish into a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar industry that helps fund some state government programs. What happens now is in doubt.

“In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws with the Department’s finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions,” considering the seriousness of a crime and its impact on the community, Sessions told prosecutors in a one-page memo.

While Sessions, a longtime marijuana foe, has been carrying out a Justice Department agenda that follows Trump’s top priorities on such issues as immigration and opioids, this change reflects his own concerns. He railed against marijuana as an Alabama senator and has assailed it as comparable to heroin.

Trump, as a candidate, said pot should be left up to the states, but his personal views on marijuana remain largely unknown.