Park Rangers Play Catch Up in Wildfire Preparations

Park rangers dedicate significant time before fire season to prepare land for possible devastation.  This year, that preparation time was cut short by the government shutdown. Now, park rangers and the U.S. Forest Service are working to recoup lost time and secure public lands.

Last year saw some of the largest, deadliest, and most destructive fires in U.S. history.

To prepare for this year’s fire season, President Trump issued an executive order on “Promoting Active Management of America’s Forests, Rangelands, and other Federal Lands to Improve Conditions and Reduce Wildfire Risk” just days before the partial government shutdown began in December 2018. This order called for more active fire management strategies; more coordinated federal, state, tribal, and local efforts; and better treated land.

Unfortunately, national, state, and local groups are finding this mission hard to deliver.

During the month of January, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service traditionally hire additional seasonal staff, train new rangers, secure helicopters and water-dropping planes, and clear fire-feeding bush.

But as one law enforcement ranger based at Yosemite National Park told The Hill, “We’re already passed the wire and we’re going to be delaying bringing people on, meaning everything will be a little more pushed back with the brush clearing and pile burning, too. There is a lot of potential risk involved in that. When we don’t have staff prepared for fire season, that compounds the effect — and that’s just not for NPS, but the Forest Service, too.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture lacked appropriations during the government shutdown.

According to the Agriculture Department’s Forest Service webpage, “Qualification training in fields such as firefighting and law enforcement has been delayed. Certain fuels treatments to improve forest conditions have been delayed or cancelled. Work that could only be done during winter months may not be completed.”

The U.S. Forest Service manages 20 million acres of public land in California alone which is considered highly susceptible to wildfires.

In Montana, local and state law enforcement rely on cooperation with federal law enforcement to prepare their officers for fire season.

During the government shutdown, dozens of training courses, such as ‘Smoke Management’ and ‘Incident Leadership’, were canceled because the Department of Agriculture did not have enough working staff to host the trainings.

A Montana workshop to help community leaders prepare their neighborhoods for potential fires has been canceled due to the lack of federal employees able to attend and lead discussions. The Tennessee-Kentucky Wildland Fire Academy, a 25-course, two-week training event for federal rangers to better prepare for fires, has also been canceled.

Philip Higuera, an assistant professor at the University of Montana and one of the workshop organizers, told NPR, “This is an example of how the shutdown has more far-reaching consequences than we - citizens, scientists, or politicians - initially anticipate.”

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