There’s been a blizzard this week in Utah, and still, State Forester Brian Cottam is preoccupied with forest fires. Usually, he and his team would be making plans with the federal government to help prevent fires. Even once the snow lets up, though, he’s not sure when he’ll get back to work with his federal colleagues.
Fire prevention is a collaborative effort with local, state and federal agencies and private landowners – and it’s being held up because of the federal government shutdown.
“With the federal government being out for 30-plus days, it makes good forest management and good wildfire preparation incredibly difficult,” Cottam said. “This is really troubling for anyone that is concerned about wildfires.”
And the wildfires will surely come, if last year is any indication. In 2018, Utah saw significantly more structures burned by wildfires than in the previous five years combined, according to data from the National Interagency Coordination Center.
California lost a record 1,671,203 acres on state, local and US Forest Service land to wildfires in 2018, according to Cal Fire statistics. In Oregon, 897,263 acres burned in 2018, the state reports. In Nevada, the past two years saw “devastating” fires, according to Nevada State Forester and Firewarden Kacey KC. In 2017 and in 2018 more than a million acres burned each year.
“From a planning perspective, when you look at all we do in the off-season, if there is such a thing any more as an ‘off-season,’ is looking at our mitigation efforts and figuring out where to put our resources and funding,” KC said. “All of that has been stalled. We are coming forward with what we think we know, but it’s hard without our federal colleagues in the room.”
Oregon’s state forester, Peter Daugherty, said in a statement, “We work with federal partners on fire prevention, detection, and response, forest health surveys and treatments, and private landowner assistance programs that focus on forest health and fuels mitigation treatments. We also partner with federal agencies to increase harvest and fuels treatments on federal forest lands.
“While much of this work has continued through the federal shutdown, some efforts have been slowed.”
The US Forest Service, part of the US Department of Agriculture, can be called upon to respond to an emergency, but many employees who handle fire maintenance duties are not working.
“Despite operational challenges during this time, we are doing our best to hire and train employees so the agency readies itself to fight fire in the upcoming year,” the service’s website says.
“The Forest Service understands treating hazardous fuels with prescribed burning is an important tool that can reduce the wildfire risk and impacts to natural resources and communities. We recognize that prescribed fire work relies heavily on timing, ground and weather conditions,” it says, noting that it might make case-by-case decisions to treat hazardous fuels, “prioritizing work in the highest risk areas where conditions are highly-favorable for success.”
Running out of time to rehab from last year’s fires
In Nevada, where 87% of the land is federally owned, the federal government has to play a large role in this work. A lot of rehabilitation work happens in the winter months, but that also isn’t happening as much due to the shutdown, which makes rehab on the state land less effective, too.
“This is the prime seeding and planting time, when we have the most success with our rehabilitation efforts,” KC said. “We can treat state the land we control, but if 87% of adjacent land is not worked on, it greatly impacts the success of our treatment. There’s no seamless boundary that will keep noxious weeds and grass that are on their side from coming across. It really puts a chink in our armor of fire prevention.”
The grasses and weeds are the exact kind of fuel a wildfire likes. Without these months of preparation, the work will probably get pushed out another year. “As we head into fire season, it’s too late to start mitigation. In fire season, we have to focus on suppression. This is very challenging,” KC said.
It has also put a temporary – or, in some cases, indefinite – stop to some essential federal training that firefighters need; they require continuous training credits to remain on the job. They also need the training for specialty positions, such as management.
“It is critical that firefighters get this training not just to maintain qualifications but also to advance or move firefighters into a higher level of qualifications,” said Daniel Smith, fire director for the National Association of State Foresters. “As people retire, you constantly need to get more people into higher roles, but that can’t happen without this training.”
On its website, the US Forest Service says, “As we continue to conduct critical training to the extent feasible, we are carefully evaluating timing and need for each class. We are making difficult choices; some courses are not feasible at this time.”
Smith said that if a shutdown had to happen, winter is a better time than during active fire season. But if the prep work isn’t done, fire season could be much worse. “There is considerable concern that the work on the federal land is not being done because of the shutdown,” Smith said.
In Arizona, the state has already been battling wildfires this year. The Prescott Valley Fire was fully contained Wednesday, and the land is being monitored. “As far as the shutdown goes, it is not impacting fire suppression; that is business as usual, regardless of furlough or not. We didn’t have to call out for federal assistance with that one, and if there is an emergency, we will work with the feds, and they will work with us,” said Tiffany Davila, public affairs officer for Arizona’s Department of Forestry and Fire Management.
In Arizona, wildfires have begun
Davila said her department has seen federal trainings canceled, but she still thinks in-house training will get the department up to speed. What’s missing is some of the specialty training.
The biggest impact the shutdown has had in Arizona involves the mitigation work that isn’t being done on federal land there, some of the grants that they typically get for personal protection equipment could be be affected, and the usual fire restriction planning that the state does in conjunction with the federal government has had to stop. “We don’t have the federal partners to discuss this, so we’ll have to get those talks started when they come back,” she said.
“It’s affecting us in a small way now, but if the shutdown continues to move into February or March, as we get closer to fire season, then we will have to have a bigger conversation,” Davila said.
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Fighting wildfires is a collaborative effort.
“It is the flat-out truth. Every Western state forester would say the same thing. We have to work closely together with other agencies. It’s not that our work ends at the state line or with the private landowner. We are in constant communication with our federal colleagues to make sure, with the limited resources we have and limited people, we are working together in the most effective way,” said Cottam, the Utah state forester. “It’s frustrating, and I feel for my federal counterparts.”