Wildfire season preparations delayed by shutdown

Wildfire season preparations delayed by shutdown
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Park rangers are worrying about the lasting effects from the recent shutdown, particularly when it comes to preparations for the next fire season.

The longest shutdown in U.S. history ended on Friday after 35 days, and it coincided with the crucial fire season planning period for many national parks and forests.

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The delay in preparation — hiring seasonal staff, training rangers, securing helicopters and water-dropping planes, and clearing fire-feeding brush — is seen by some as a major setback to the affected agencies.
 
“We’re already getting very close to the early stages of fire season,” said one former National Park Service (NPS) superintendent. “Training is not happening right now, hiring is not happening for the summer season — all of that hiring is not happening. And equally terrifying to me is that the government contracting that has to go forward to contract for aircraft to do drops and for helicopters” wasn’t happening during the shutdown.
 
Some officials are worried that another delay could be on the horizon, with the current spending bill for the Interior Department and other agencies such as the Department of Agriculture set to expire on Feb. 15 unless a spending deal is reached.
 
“There is not a lot of faith that three weeks of dealing will solve anything,” said one California law enforcement ranger. “We will get our folks paid, pay our bills, push HR actions through, and prep for round 2.”

At a time when forest fires in the U.S. have become more destructive and more deadly, officials are concerned that the recent five-week funding lapse has created an insurmountable obstacle.

At Yosemite, one of the nation’s largest national parks and one that often experiences multiple forest fires each year, the park was partially closed in August as 96,901 acres burned from one fire. Rangers there typically aim to bring in seasonal fire workers starting in May.

“We’re already passed the wire and we’re going to be delaying bringing people on, meaning everything will be a little more pushed back with the brush clearing and pile burning, too,” said a law enforcement ranger based at Yosemite. “There is a lot of potential risk involved in that. When we don’t have staff prepared for fire season, that compounds the effect — and that’s just not for NPS, but the Forest Service, too.”

The U.S. Forest Service also had to delay much of its winter fire preparation work.

“The lapse in funding has prevented progress on projects that would normally occur at this time of year, affecting partners, tribes, local communities, and businesses,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service said on its webpage. “Qualification training in fields such as firefighting and law enforcement has been delayed. Certain fuels treatments to improve forest conditions have been delayed or cancelled. Work that could only be done during winter months may not be completed.”

An agency spokesperson said they are doing everything in their power to get back on track.

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“We recognize that the partial government shutdown has impacted the important work our agency does on behalf of the American people,” the spokesperson said in a statement Monday. “With funding now restored we are assessing priorities for the remainder of the year and returning to the work of caring for the land and serving people.”

The NPS did not respond to a request for comment.

The delay in fire season preparation comes as President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report MORE has pushed the Interior and Agriculture departments to engage in more “forest management” to prevent the scale of fires seen in California over the past few years.

Trump, on the eve of the government shutdown that began Dec. 22, issued an Executive Order to “reduce wildfire risk.” The document asked officials to work to remove hazardous fuels such a dead brush and trees from forests on the hundreds of thousands of acres of federally owned land.

“For decades, dense trees and undergrowth have amassed in these lands, fueling catastrophic wildfires,” Trump wrote in the order. “These conditions, along with insect infestation, invasive species, disease, and drought, have weakened our forests, rangelands, and other Federal lands, and have placed communities and homes at risk of damage from catastrophic wildfires.”

Part of the plan included the chopping and sale of at least 3.8 billion board feet of timber from Forest Service operated lands. Both agencies are supposed to have identified and logged the appropriate trees by March 31, under the order.

But rangers worry that any goals from before the shutdown will be a scramble to achieve before peak visitor and fire season in the spring and summer.

“I think if the government stays open, seasonal fire hiring can get back on track, barely,” said the Yosemite ranger. “But winter pile burning, already cleared brush that needs to be burned, has already been delayed over a month. It basically puts additional stressors on firefighters to work harder and more before fire season even starts.”