Shutdown Could Have Long-Term Effects On Wildfire Disaster Response

Jan 13, 2019
Originally published on January 13, 2019 1:09 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Longer lines at airports, national parks closed and, of course, for hundreds of thousands of federal workers, missed paychecks and worry about keeping food on the table. The partial government shutdown has had some immediate impacts. The longer-term ones can be harder to see. NPR's Nathan Rott has been reporting on how the shutdown could hurt the disaster response to wildfire. And, of course, this is happening after the worst wildfire season in California history. Hey, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, Nate, it's not fire season for most of the country right now.

ROTT: No.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what is that potential long-term impact?

ROTT: Well, so the issue is that this is the time of year where forest managers and firefighters usually do a lot of the administrative duties and preparatory work they need to for the upcoming season. And because so many - so much of the federal workforce is furloughed right now, those things aren't happening. So that's hiring for seasonal positions, contracts for aircraft that aren't getting done, contracts for heavy equipment.

A number of training academies and workshops have been canceled or put off, which means firefighters might not be able to get a specific qualification in time for the next season. Perhaps more concerning than lost training, though, is lost time for projects that would reduce fire risk.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So make that real for us. What kind of projects are we talking about exactly?

ROTT: So fuel mitigation projects, thinning operations to reduce vegetation in federal forests and prescribed fires. So prescribed fires are widely viewed as the best tool forest managers have to avoid the types of big, catastrophic wildfires that have, you know, become all too common each year. But because of the shutdown, those aren't happening on federal land right now.

And the window in which to do them is closing in places like the southeast. This is prime time for prescribed fire there. I talked to Jim Karels, the director of the Florida Forest Service, and he says the feds have already missed out on three weeks of good burning conditions there.

JIM KARELS: You know, if you miss a whole month of the prime time, it's hard to catch up those acres at least for another year.

ROTT: You know, and it's important to note most fire ecologists would tell you we're already way behind in that regard.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So it could be quite dangerous. And, Nate, hasn't President Trump tweeted repeatedly that there needs to be more forest management to prevent megafires?

ROTT: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The shutdown clearly isn't helping that.

ROTT: Yeah. You know, and look, President Trump is not wrong there. Bad or misguided forest management, let's say, is one of the big reasons that we do have these big fires, you know, as well as climate change. The irony here though is that in a place like California, where I am now, the president keeps berating our forest management, threatening to withhold emergency funds. But more than 50 percent of California's forests are managed by the federal government. And right now, due to the shutdown, federal management isn't happening on those lands.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Nathan Rott. Thank you so much.

ROTT: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.