When the 35-day government shutdown mercifully ended last week, at least temporarily, federal wilderness managers were able to take a deep breath, look around, and take stock of how much damage they’d need to repair. Both physically, in the case of vandalized national parks or public lands that would need substantial snow and downed tree removal after storms, and in terms of crucial work and research time lost during the month-long furlough of federal employees.
One of the potentially disastrous negative legacies left in the wake of the shutdown may be felt this coming fire season. For many parks, the winter is when crucial planning and preparation for the summer to come take place. Seasonal staffers are often brought in during the spring, and it takes time to adequately get them up to speed on fire prevention systems. The shutdown delayed hiring, pushing time for training and logistics of acquiring badly needed equipment far deeper into the winter than federal managers are comfortable with.
“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.
As the polar vortex rushes into the central and northern parts of the country, dropping temperatures to bone-chilling ranges, and the West is doused with rain and carpeted in snow in the high country, it may seem like fire season is impossibly far away, but lots of crucial fire management goes on in the depths of winter.
A large part of the preparations for the upcoming season involved removing dense underbrush and felled and dead trees to remove fuel for the catastrophic wildfires that have ripped through California in recent summers. The White House actually issued an Executive Order back in December directing federal agencies to mitigate risk as much as possible by disposing of timber fuels throughout the West (no, the word “rake” does not appear in the EO). The order asked for 3.9 billion acre-feet of timber to be harvested.
But with no money flowing into the NPS or USFS over the past month, and workers at home, much of that crucial work has gone undone. The EO wanted that work done by March 31, but that seems unlikely after shutting everything down for five weeks.
“A lot of preparation just didn’t happen,” Stephen Graydon, a former USFS firefighter and now executive director of an organization that helps authorities mitigate fire risks, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s hard enough to get ahead on large-scale forest treatments. While I can’t give you a number of acres that wasn’t treated during the shutdown, we’ve lost opportunities. The shutdown will have a lasting effect.”
What could be worse is that the shutdown has only temporarily been lifted.
The government funding bill agreed to by the White House that lifted the shutdown extends only through February 15. If a long-term agreement can’t be made by Congress and the White House, the government may very well shut down again, indefinitely.
“I think if the government stays open, seasonal fire hiring can get back on track,” an anonymous Yosemite ranger told The Hill. “Barely.”
If another shutdown halts fire preparation again, especially so close to warmer weather, all the delays fire officials have already seen will just be compounded, with little hope for financial help from Washington.
In the meantime, fire management officials and crews have a huge amount of catching up to do to make up for lost time. Whether they’ll hit their goals or not remains to be seen.
Top photo: U.S. Forest Service, Southwestern Region, Kaibab National Forest.