Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 1, 2019.

The Cost of Shutting Down

Experts say the longest-ever US government shutdown could spell trouble for 2019 wildfire season


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Ronda Scholting was ready for class to start on January 7. Scholting, a public information officer for the West Metro Fire Protection District in Lakewood, Colorado, was one of hundreds of firefighters nationwide accepted to the 17th annual Tennessee-Kentucky Wildland Fire Academy. Her plan was to take a course on wildfire prevention education in anticipation of the 2019 wildfire season in Colorado, which typically begins in April.


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But neither Scholting nor any of the other prospective students made the trip to Bell Buckle, Tennessee, for the academy. Since it relies on funding from an array of federal organizations, including the United States Forest Service, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and the National Parks Service, the academy was canceled because of the 35-day partial federal government shutdown that began in late December and continued through late January. The shutdown was the longest of its kind in US history, spawned by a feud between President Trump and Congressional Democrats who would not allow him to enhance and build a wall along the US-Mexico border.

“This is a very hard class to find, to get into, and to complete just because they don’t offer it that often,” Scholting told 9 News, a local television news station. “I was very disappointed when they canceled the class because this particular class will not be offered in Colorado or the Rocky Mountain region this year, and probably not next year.” A captain from her department also told 9 News that the cancelation of the academy “puts [the department] a little behind the eight-ball” in terms of readying for the 2019 wildfire season.

Across the country, other wildfire classes, as well as wildfire prevention efforts like prescribed burns, did not take place as scheduled due to the shutdown. Now, experts fear the interruption could have an impact on the severity of this year’s wildfire season.

“I’ve seen many cancelations of wildfire trainings and state-level educational offerings,” said Michele Steinberg, who heads NFPA’s Wildfire Division. “I’m concerned about the impact that will have for wildfire operations staff. People have to be qualified to go on the fire line and do the job, and if they can’t get to trainings, there are potential ramifications when the next big fire hits.”

Missing prescribed burns can also present a significant setback, Steinberg said, because “timing is everything with some of these treatments you do in nature,” so if you miss the ideal window for carrying out a prescribed burn, there’s nothing you can do about it.

Stephen Pyne, a renowned wildfire researcher and historian, lamented the cancelation of one training in particular—the “Fire in Ecosystem Management” course, taught at the National Advanced Fire and Resource Institute in Tucson, Arizona, which was also canceled last year because of a threatened government shutdown. “Calendars are full,” he said. “You can’t easily reschedule such training. It’s not just students, it’s the cadre of instructors who are brought in from around the country. One of the course’s great attributes, its longevity and heritage, is pretty much shattered.”

In an email to the Forest Service, NFPA Journal requested information related to the number of trainings and burns that did not take place as a result of the shutdown and whether they would be made up. But the agency responded only by saying, “We recognize that the partial government shutdown has impacted the important work our agency does on behalf of the American people. 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.”

Although quantifying such information is undoubtedly difficult, since much of it is carried out by individual states using federal money, others have asked for it, too. In a letter sent to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on February 1, 42 of California’s 53 US representatives requested “a full accounting of firefighting and fire prevention activities that were affected by the government shutdown,” including the “estimated number of acres of hazardous fuels in California that should have been cleared during the period of the shutdown” and “any and all wildfire-related training activities that were delayed or cancelled.” In an article published by NPR about two weeks before the shutdown ended, the director of a California conservation group estimated “hundreds, if not thousands,” of acres of land would be affected if the shutdown continued.

While the Forest Service at large didn’t directly address questions related to the amount of work that didn’t occur and whether it would be made up, Zach Behrens, a Forest Service employee who works in public affairs for the San Bernadino National Forest in California, said he remains confident in the service’s ability to make up for the lost time. “Despite potentially missed burn windows, we are working to complete our projects and feel challenges can be mitigated,” Behrens told the Desert Sun newspaper in February.

Ripple effect

The impact the US government shutdown could have on the upcoming wildfire season is a concern not only in this country, but abroad as well.

Cathelijne Stoof, coordinator of the Wageningen Fire Centre in the Netherlands, said perhaps the biggest—and least-talked-about—impact of the shutdown on wildfire safety could be the communication stoppage it caused during a time of year when wildfire safety experts should be discussing lessons learned from the past year’s events. “In science we learn because of exchange,” she said. “Fire scientists and managers not allowed to go to conferences means, for instance, that those involved in the big Camp Fire [in California in November] do not have the opportunity to exchange information with people involved in analyzing the Greek or Portuguese wildfires. Despite the differences there are so many parallels between fires and we scientists need to exchange information to learn.”

In a broader sense, experts also believe the shutdown could affect natural disaster response, as it halted payment for workers contracted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Hundreds of workers contracted to prepare for future disasters by carrying out tasks such as flood mapping and manufacturing mobile emergency housing were told by FEMA in a notice to stop working or risk working without compensation, the Washington Post reported. “This is one of the side effects of the shutdown,” former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told the Post. “It’s limiting FEMA’s ability to have contracts in place for future disasters.”

Natural disaster–related trainings were also canceled because of the shutdown. Each January and February, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center runs three week-long trainings for local emergency officials in hurricane-prone areas, and the first two were canceled, according to an article published in Insurance Journal. The trainings provide valuable information on decision making in response to pending storms, including when to issue evacuation orders, the magazine said.

At NFPA, the shutdown did not affect funding for the organization’s flagship wildfire prevention program, Firewise USA®. The program, which teaches communities nationwide how to best prepare for and mitigate the threat of wildfire, is currently co-sponsored by the Forest Service, the US Department of the Interior, and the National Association of State Foresters. “This is an important program,” Steinberg said. “We would not want to see its funding diminished at a time when there is more and more need for communities to better prepare for wildfires.”

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images

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