Every winter, forest managers in places like California take a step back, analyze their budgets and plan on how to deal with the next fire season. But the government shutdown has shuttered a lot of those efforts, because federal lands like the U.S. Forest Service— which has been furloughed since December 22 — plays a huge role.
For example, crews in Redwood National Park are “just sitting on their hands,” according to University of California fire advisor Lenya Quinn-Davidson in Humboldt County, because they can’t work on federal land during the shutdown.
She says that workers were “excited to do more” on the heels of the state’s worst fire season in history. “This is just taking the wind out of their sails,” she said.
The shutdown has more or less stopped wildfire-prevention activities such as forest thinning and prescribed burns — that’s where fires are lit on purpose as a management tool — on federal land in California, even though weather conditions in a lot of the country are ideal for practices like prescribed burns, according to Quinn-Davidson.
“They're having to miss those windows. That must be so frustrating,” she said.
The furloughs and shutdown are also impacting fire clean-up in places like Redding, where the Carr Fire burned 229,000 acres last summer. Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, where the fire started west of the city, almost entirely burned, and Quinn-Davidson is worried that, as heavy rain falls during the shutdown, road repairs and erosion control will no longer be a priority.
She says every day the shutdown persists is a missed opportunity for cleaning up California’s dense forests, which the president again threatened to defund in a Tweet on Wednesday.
Republican Congressman Tom McClintock agrees that poor forest management is to blame for the state’s devastating wildfires. But in a statement Wednesday, he “strongly” urged the president to change his mind about the shutdown.
In McClintock’s district, Keegan Schafer with the Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District says that during the past 19 days of the shutdown, “there were at least 14 good days of burning, but that hasn’t happened.”
Winter is the season when agencies like the Forest Service hire and plan, since wildfires aren’t usually active. Groups like the California Tahoe Conservancy work in tandem with the Forest Service to authorize large clean-up projects. Executive Director Patrick Wright says the group has thousands of acres of treatment planned, but needs the Forest Service to approve funding agreements, permits and environmental reviews.
“Every week is critical,” Wright said. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of acres could be affected if the shutdown continues for an extended period. There’s the potential for missing an entire field season.”
The shutdown is also causing challenges for UC Berkeley forestry expert Bill Stewart. He’s working on a collaboration between the UC system and the Forest Service to streamline the cost of preventing wildfires. But the shutdown is making the five-year project, which has end-of-January deadlines, difficult to accomplish.
“Everything has come to a total stop,” Stewart said. “They are not even allowed to answer their emails. If this continues it may be hard to restart for this next season.”
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