Federal shutdown has halted some preparations for wildfires, and it could get worse

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Training has been halted for thousands of western firefighters. The U.S. Forest Service can’t let contracts for needed equipment. In forests across the West, no federal employees are doing work to reduce dry “fuel” that feeds catastrophic blazes.

These are some of the impacts of the 19-day federal shutdown on federal firefighters, and experts say the situation could quickly worsen. If the shutdown drags out for several more weeks, federal fire crews won’t be ready for the months ahead, following a 2018 fire season that killed scores of people and destroyed thousands of homes in California and other states.

“This is the second year in a row we’ve had a shutdown right in the middle of the (firefighter) training season,” said Jim Whittington, a former U.S. Bureau of Land Management employee who runs an Oregon-based crisis management consulting firm, Whittington & Associates. “The last thing we want is for fires to break out, and not have the kind of crews we need to to field.”

As Whittington notes, federal and state firefighting agencies have long used the winter months to prepare for the upcoming fire season. This includes hiring of firefighters, contracting for aircraft, helicopters and food service and training of existing personnel.

Now, much of that is in limbo.

Earlier this month, the Tennessee-Kentucky Wildland Fire Academy announced it was canceling its Jan. 7-19 training courses “because of the partial federal government shutdown.” If the shutdown continues into next week, it could affect firefighter training academies in Washington, Oregon, Colorado and other states, Whittington said.

Each year, all wildland firefighters are required to undergo a refresher course, to keep them current on hazards, equipment and communications methods. But because federal employees are unable to travel to attend the wildfire academies — either as students or instructors — some of the courses are being cancelled.

Altogether, more than 30,000 employees are involved with wildland fire suppression at the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior. A Forest Service contingency plan for the shutdown exempts actual firefighters from furloughs, but thousands more staff in support positions are no longer on the job.

Because of inadequate staffing, the U.S. Forest Service has suspended the “pile burns” it conducts seasonally in the Sierra Nevada, Cascades and other mountain ranges, according to community forestry organizations. Such burns are conducted during the winter months, even with snow on the ground, to safely burn off piles of dead timber that crews collect during the warmer months.

Nick Goulette, executive director of the Watershed Center, a community forestry group in Hayfork, Cal., said he knows of pile burning projects suspended in the Tahoe Basin, outside of Dolores, Colorado, and possibly many other places. Overall, he said, an extended shutdown could leave the Forest Service much less prepared to prevent fires as spring approaches.

“There is no question about that,” Goulette said. “The Forest Service works through all their hiring processes during the winter, and initiates its training regime during these months…There is no question this jeopardizes readiness as it drags on.”

Responding to the deadly Camp Fire in Northern California last year, Trump blamed California officials for letting their forests become overgrown. During a Nov. 17 visit to the fire zone, Trump called for more “raking and cleaning” of the forests, presumably a call to thin them of excessive undergrowth that fuels fires.

But because of the shutdown, some California groups have put a hold on prospective projects to reduce wildfire threats. In Toulumne County, one local organization — Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions — was planning to apply for a state forest management grant to reduce fire hazards in the Stanislaus National Forest. Unable to obtain needed maps and other information from the U.S. Forest Service, the group has sidelined its work, said John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center.

“This is just one small example of how not having federal employees working can lead to the potential loss of outside funding” to reduce wildfire threats, Buckley said in an email.

Not all firefighting agencies have been affected by the federal shutdown. In California, much of the defense against wildfires is led by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire. The agency draws on more than 7,000 permanent and seasonal employees, and has responsibility for 31 million acres statewide.

According to Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean, the federal shutdown “has had no real affect on CAL FIRE whether it be for firefighters or forest management or fuel reduction projects on state land.”

At the federal level, it was not immediately known how many Forest Service employees have been furloughed. Because of the shutdown, no one was manning the agency’s DC press office on Wednesday.

Even without the shutdown, firefighters were facing an increasingly compressed “window” to prepare for the upcoming fire season, Whittington said. Because of climate change, the fire season has become lengthened, with big fires breaking out late in the fall and starting up again as early as March. “That gives us much less time to prepare,” he said.

McClatchy’s Kate Irby contributed to this report.