Government shutdown taking toll on wildfire preparations

This June 2018 file photo from the Grass Valley area of Pine Valley Mountain shows smoke and flames rising from the large West Valley Fire on Wednesday, June 27, 2018 | Photo courtesy of Connor Pickett, St. George News

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Just two months after a wildfire wiped out Paradise, California, officials are gearing up for this year’s fire season and fear the government shutdown could make it even more difficult than one of the worst in history.

The winter months are critical for wildfire managers who use the break from the flames to prepare for the next onslaught, but much of that effort has ground to a halt on U.S. land because employees are furloughed. Firefighting training courses are being canceled from Tennessee to Oregon, piles of dead trees are untended in federal forests and controlled burns to thin dry vegetation aren’t getting done.

Although the furloughs only affect federal employees, the collaborative nature of wildland firefighting means the pain of the four-week-long shutdown is having a ripple effect — from firefighters on the ground to federal contractors and top managers who control the firefighting strategy.

State and local crews who need training classes, for example, are scrambling without federal instructors. Conservation groups that work with the U.S. Forest Service to plan wildfire-prevention projects on federal lands are treading water. Annual retreats where local, state and federal firefighting agencies strategize are being called off.

The fire season starts as early as March in the southeastern United States, and by April, fires pop up in the Southwest. Last year’s most devastating fire leveled the Northern California town of Paradise just before Thanksgiving, leaving just a few months to prepare between seasons.

In this file photo, the Brian Head fire rages near Blue Spring Mountain, Iron County, Utah, June 26, 2017 | Photo by Tracie Sullivan, Cedar City News / St. George News

“I think a lot of people don’t understand that while there’s not fire going on out there right now, there’s a lot of really critical work going on for the fire season — and that’s not getting done,” said Michael DeGrosky, chief of the Fire Protection Bureau for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

It’s especially important with climate change making wildfire seasons longer, deadlier and more destructive.

DeGrosky was supposed to be teaching a course this week for firefighters who want to qualify for the command staff of a fire management team. But the class was canceled without instructors from federal agencies.

Similar classes were called off in Oregon and Tennessee, and others face the same fate as the shutdown drags on. President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats are at odds over funding for a border wall.

A dozen senators from Oregon, California, New Mexico, Washington, Colorado, Nevada, West Virginia and Michigan sent a letter this week to Trump warning that the shutdown would put lives at risk this coming fire season. Classes necessary for fire incident managers, smokejumpers and hotshot crews are in jeopardy in the near future, the senators said.

Smokejumpers parachute into remote forests to battle blazes not inaccessible by firefighters on the ground and hotshot crews are small groups of elite firefighters trained to battle the most ferocious flames.

The winter is also when seasonal firefighters apply for jobs, get the required drug tests and move to where they will train and work. In many cases, there’s no one to answer the phone or process the applications, and some potential recruits may decide to work elsewhere to avoid the hassle.

“Even if the shutdown ends and we start hiring people, we will have missed the cream of the crop,” DeGrosky said.

This June 2018 file photo taken from Toquerville, Utah, shows the West Valley Fire, June 28, 2018 | Photo by and courtesy of Wendi Merritt, St. George News

The U.S. Forest Service said in an email that the agency was committed to hiring for temporary and permanent firefighting positions and would continue critical training “to the extent feasible.”

The first session of an apprenticeship program for wildland firefighters went ahead this week, Forest Service spokeswoman Katie O’Connor said.

“The agency is assessing and prioritizing the activities we are able to maintain while in shutdown status. We are unable to speculate on specific impacts while the government shutdown is ongoing and ever-changing,” O’Connor said in a statement.

Conservationists and fire managers say there are other concerns.

Clearing and thinning projects and planned burns on federal land that could lessen fire danger by weeding out flammable debris also are largely on hold in California, Oregon and elsewhere. Private contractors say they have received letters telling them to stop the work.

There’s already a backlog of such projects in federal forests in Oregon and Northern California, said Michael Wheelock, president of Grayback, a private contractor in Grants Pass, Oregon.

Intentional fires can only be set in a narrow winter window before temperatures and humidity falls — and that is rapidly closing, Wheelock said.

“Every week that goes by, it’s going to start increasing the impact,” he said.

Joyce McLean, who lost her and her husband’s home in Paradise last November, supports Trump’s push for a border wall but worries what will happen if firefighters aren’t prepared for next time.

“I hope there are no more forest fires,” said McLean, 74. “I wouldn’t wish that on nobody.”

Written by GILLIAN FLACCUS, Associated Press.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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  • Craig January 17, 2019 at 2:55 pm

    It’s is sad this must happen. But, we finally have a President who will do his job and make the very hard decisions rather than skate by like many of his predecessors have done.

    We now have a President standing up for America against those standing up for a party. I am proud of him.

    • iceplant January 18, 2019 at 7:24 am

      You’re proud of a criminal? Sad.

  • Redbud January 17, 2019 at 2:55 pm

    While we’re on the topic of shutdowns, look who else just got shut down, courtesy of Donald J. Trump! His letter reads as follows:

    “Dear Madame Speaker,

    Due to the Shutdown, I am sorry to inform you that your trip to Brussels, Egypt and Afghanistan has been postponed. We will reschedule this seven-day excursion when the Shutdown is over, In light of the 800,000 great American workers not receiving pay, I am sure you would agree that postponing this public relations event is totally appropriate. I also feel that, during this period, it would be better if you were in Washington negotiating with me and joining the Strong Border Security movement to end the Shutdown. Obviously, if you would like to make your journey by flying commercial, that would certainly be your prerogative.

    I look forward to seeing you soon and even more forward to watching our open and dangerous Southern Border finally receive the attention, funding, and security it so desperately deserves!


    Donald J. Trump”

    • iceplant January 17, 2019 at 4:31 pm

      Remember, comrade… Trump is responsible for this whole debacle. Every last bit of it. But you go ahead and keep up with your blatant BS support of him while he continues to hurt Americans with this idiotic shutdown. His letter to Pelosi is utterly meaningless. He’s only using this whole thing as a distraction from the Mueller investigation. Keep living with your head in the sand, bud. You ignore facts, truth, and reason. All you do is spread lies and propaganda in the name of a man who doesn’t give one rat’s … about you or people like you. Just keep throwing your blind support behind this human dumpster fire. I can’t wait to see you eating crow when this is all over. Sheep.
      Ed. ellipsis

      • Redbud January 17, 2019 at 9:25 pm

        I wouldn’t describe it as meaningless, I believe you meant EPIC! I also echo the comments of the first poster, I too am proud of Trump for standing up for what is right for our country. This was awesome swamp drainage!

        • iceplant January 18, 2019 at 7:17 am

          Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. That’s obstruction of justice not “standing up for what is right.”
          Your president is a criminal and a liar. Only a matter of time now. Tick tock tick tock, comrade.

  • Brian January 17, 2019 at 4:01 pm

    We’ve had politicians on the left and right for 50 years talking about the need to secure the southern border (including building a wall) but never actually doing anything about it. This includes Pelosi, Schumer, Obama, both Clintons, Reid, and many, many, many others.

    If this is what it takes I’m all for it. The only part of this that bothers me is that all these federal employees get back pay. I’ve had to stop working before because there wasn’t enough work or money to keep things going and never got back pay. When it happened I got busy doing other things to bring in enough money to pay the bills until it was over. I realize it isn’t their fault, but when it happened to me it wasn’t my fault. Life happens. Generally speaking federal employees have a pretty sweet gig, so you can’t complain too much when a hiccup comes along. Even one that last for 30 days and is over petty politics (that’s pointing to Pelosi et al; build the wall!).

    • Comment January 17, 2019 at 4:47 pm

      They’re getting a very very long paid vacation. As if a fed gov’t job isn’t a vacation in its own right.

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