Shut­down puts train­ing on hold for western wild­fire fight­ers

Merced Sun-Star - - Front Page - BY STU­ART LEAVENWORTH sleav­en­[email protected]­ Stu­art Leavenworth: 202-383-6070, @sleav­en­worth

Train­ing has been halted for thou­sands of western fire­fight­ers. The U.S. For­est Ser­vice can’t award 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.

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.

AU­TUMN CRUZ Sacra­mento Bee

Fire­fight­ers bat­tling the An­gora Fire watch a pre­scribed burn while bat­tling the blaze in Lake Ta­hoe in 2007.

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