4 Ways The Government Shutdown Will Negatively Affect California Wildfires in 2019

As the federal government shutdown reaches its second month, preparation for the upcoming fire season is being negatively affected. According to Wildfire Today, there are “10,000 wildland firefighters that work for the U.S. Forest Service that is being forced to work for no pay. The other 5,000 are furloughed and not working — they are also not being paid.” And these numbers also don’t include the slew of other firefighters who work for the National Park Service, The Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish and Wildlife Service, etc. The result? Firefighters are applying for other jobs.

Fire prevention and suppression is a collaborative effort between state and federal agencies and private landowners. With 2018 having some record-breaking wildfires, experts are saying we should prepare for a similar number and volume of fires this 2019. But with the federal government being on lockdown, states and private companies are being forced to burden the weight of proper training and preparation for the 2019 fire season.

Here are four ways the federal government shutdown could negatively impact the upcoming year:

Firefighters are getting other jobs and no new recruits aren’t being hired

Since firefighters have been working without pay, many have started to look for other jobs. In an interview with NPR, Scott Gorman, a fire superintendent with the U.S. Forest Service, and his wife Sarah Barnes said “We were able to get our savings to account up a little bit, but we are already seeing it dwindle down. We talked the other night about what our limit would be as far as how low will the savings get before he decides he's got to go find other work. And that's a hard conversation to have.”

And while there is technically no official hiring freeze, budget cuts are severely affecting the ability to hire and train new recruits.

Training courses are being canceled

While there’s already an issue of firefighters leaving and a lack of new recruits, current workers aren’t even getting the necessary training required to do the job. Every year, firefighters are educated on the latest technologies and firefighter techniques. Due to the shutdown, however, many organizations leading these training programs are forced to cancel classes due to a lack of funds and resources.

According to Fire Rescue 1, “The Tennessee-Kentucky Wildland Fire Academy canceled a course that was set to run from Jan. 7 to Jan. 19, and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources canceled firefighting training courses. Officials at agencies in Oregon and Colorado have reported they may have to do the same.”

Proper land preparation + rehab work isn’t happening

During the winter months, a large majority of rehabilitation work, like getting rid of noxious weeds, is done. While some local communities are stepping up to volunteer to help fireproof homes and the surrounding land, in some states like Nevada, 87% of the land is federally owned. This makes proper fire prevention work nearly impossible.

In an article on CNN, Nevada State Forester and Firewarden Kacey KC said

“The grasses and weeds are the exact 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."

Morale is at an all-time low

Coming off one of the United States’ busiest wildfire seasons and with the government shutdown affecting pay and training, firefighter morale is waning. No pay, no new hires, canceled training programs and no prep for the 2019 fire season underway is creating a very anxious working environment.

Paul Summerfelt, an Arizona fire management officer, said in an interview with KNAU, “This is the time of the year when the federal government, at least in the Southwest, Arizona-New Mexico, is doing fire-hire for the seasonal fire crews that are coming on. That would be initiating beginning now—it’s not. So what does that do as we progress in this cycle in terms of people being identified, hired, trained, prepared, ready? We’re just backing this thing up to where impacts will become more obvious to folks as we move forward.”

Winter is a critical season for firefighter development and nothing is happening. As the shutdown continues to loom like a dark cloud overhead, the 2019 fire season could prove to be extra stormy ––for more reasons than one.