The nearly monthlong government shutdown has delayed contracts for firefighting equipment, halted hiring for seasonal firefighters and stopped planned burns to manage forests in wildfire-prone states such as California and Oregon.
The delays could make the 2019 wildfire season more challenging, as they could mean missing a window of opportunity to perform work to prevent damaging wildfires.
The winter is a crucial time for federal agencies—the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs—to work with private companies and organizations on wildfire prevention and planning. Because of the shutdown, the vast majority of government-funded work isn’t being done.
“Some of the time you just can’t get back,” Nick Goulette, executive director of The Watershed Center, a nonprofit that does community forest and fire management in northwest California, told Bloomberg Environment. “If it’s a two-month shutdown, it doesn’t mean you’ve just lost two months of work. Some of that work gets bumped to another fire season, and we’re another year behind.”
Given last year’s devastating wildfires, the work is more important than ever, Goulette said.
President Donald Trump earlier this month blamed California’s forest-management practices for last year’s disastrous wildfires, and threatened to withhold federal aid to victims of those fires unless the state changes its practices.
There’s already a backlog of controlled burns in the West, said Goulette, whose group does six to 10 controlled burns around communities in Northern California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest and the Six Rivers National Forest, where wildfires occur almost every year.
“There’s this sense of urgency we’ve got to catch up, we’ve got to bring down this backlog of work,” he said, “but in reality, we’re just compounding it and expanding and there’s no catching up.”
Cooler, Wetter Months
Public land agencies and contractors burn piles of underbrush and dead trees mainly in cooler, wetter months, when there’s less risk of a prescribed burning spreading into a wildfire, said Daniel Ashe, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the Obama administration.
During the shutdown, there are no prescribed burns occurring on lands managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Park Service, according to agency spokespeople.
However, the Fish and Wildlife Service has brought back 12 employees on Jan. 9 to work on prescribed burn planning, and they are being paid using carryover fiscal year 2018 funds, said Barbara Wainman, an agency spokeswoman.
The National Park Service is working the with the Interior Department’s Office of Wildland Fire as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service to identify how and where to bring firefighters back to provide suppression response for unplanned wildfires, Michael Litterst, a park service spokesman, said.
The National Park Service is exploring bringing back firefighters with with fiscal 2018 carryover funds, but hasn’t yet, he said.
Meanwhile, the shutdown has caused cancellations of wildfire firefighter training courses for federal employees and federal hiring of seasonal firefighters, Joe Stutler, a forester in Deschutes County, Ore., and former 35-year Forest Service veteran, said.
“I was supposed to be at a federal facility in McClellan, Calif., this week preparing for an upcoming firefighter training session in February, and that got canceled,” he said.
The Forest Service hires approximately 10,000 federal seasonal employees during the wildfire season across the country, which makes up about one-third of the agency’s employees, Stutler said. The wildfire season typically starts in March in the Southwest region goes until as late as December in California.
“The agency is assessing and prioritizing the activities and programs we are able to maintain while in shutdown status,” John Haynes, a Forest Service spokesman, said. “We are unable to speculate on specific impacts while the government shutdown is ongoing and ever-changing.”
According to the Forest Service’s shutdown plan, local fire training classes are occurring across the country, but some interagency training has been postponed.
The agency plan also specifies that wildland fire preparedness, fire suppression, critical fire training and law enforcement are activities that could continue despite the shutdown, as well as some prescribed prescribed fire planning and burns.
Haynes didn’t say whether these activities are occurring.
Employees Layoffs, Contracts Delayed
With the shutdown, Goulette said he laid off 16 employees who work part-time in the winter on prescribed burning and planning. Half of the Watershed Center’s work is for the federal government, primarily with the Forest Service through a cooperative agreement.
Mike Wheelock hasn’t laid off any of the 500 people he employs at Grayback Forestry, which does wildfire suppression, prescribed burning and forest restoration work in Oregon and Montana.
But Wheelock, the company’s president, said that may change if the government shutdown continues for several more months, because federal contracts make up 80 percent of his company’s work.
The Forest Service is due to put out contracts that are renewed annually and new contracts in the coming weeks, but the employees who handle them are furloughed, Stutler said.
One contract that is up this year deals with water handling. It covers fire truck engines and off-road vehicles that provide water to federal and state firefighters.
The largest provider of services to the federal government on wildfire crews and equipment is the National Wildfire Suppression Association, which represents more than 260 private companies in 28 states that contract with the federal government on wildfire services. The companies provide up to 9,500 firefighters and about 9,600 pieces of equipment under interagency agreements that the federal government administers, said Deborah Miley, the group’s executive director.
Miley said that for her members, it’s primarily business as usual for now. She said the only issue will be that new federal contracts may not be awarded in the typical timeframe due to the shutdown, but the government allows the companies to work under current agreements until new contracts are signed.
Grayback is waiting for a five-year Forest Service contract the company expected to be awarded on Dec. 31 for mobile shower units for firefighters. Grayback won the bidding process for the contract for 20 years, and it’s the first time the company doesn’t have an agreement.
“A lot’s at stake for us in that. For our planning and our employees, we need to know soon,” Wheelock said.
Over the next month, Grayback hopes to bid on multiple Forest Service contracts to provide wildfire equipment such as fire truck engines, potable water and heavy equipment. If the shutdown continues for three months, it would affect the company substantially, Wheelock said
Earlier Seasons, Less Time
The delays on prescribed burns, contracting and training could lead to a more difficult 2019 wildfire season.
“We’ve spent years prioritizing these projects to be able to plan and implement them,” Goulette said, adding that planning these prescribed burns can take between two and four years to plan and receive environmental approval.
Cassandra Moseley, director of the Ecosystem Workforce Program at the University of Oregon, said the effects on future fire seasons “are going to be subtle and are going to be seen by dispatchers who are trying to get resources and the incident management teams later on.”
“The window to do agreements and contracts each year has been getting smaller and smaller as the fire season kicks in earlier and earlier,” she said, and the shutdown compounds the problem. “The effects of will be playing out all year and potentially into the next year.”
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