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Federal Wildland Firefighters Wait To Return To Duty During Shutdown

Thomas VanSelus

Winter is when the federal government starts spending dollars to prepare for the wildfire season, but the ongoing shutdown has put some of this preparation in limbo.

Cutting underbrush and holding prescribed burns are critical to keeping firefighters safe and protecting towns near fire-prone areas. But there’s basically no prescribed burning going on right now according to the National Association of State Foresters.

Penelope Morgan teaches fire ecology at the University of Idaho.

“Any reduction in that proactive work could indeed lead to more concerns about fires in the future,” Morgan says.

In addition, some training academies that prepare rookies and veterans for the upcoming season have been cancelled due to the shutdown.

Casey Judd is president of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association. He says many of his members are feeling demoralized.

“I anticipate seeing a number of folks leave. They still don’t have any support from the employing agencies,” Judd says.

Judd says that could lead to state agencies, like CAL FIRE in California, poaching firefighters.

“If they don’t have the support from their government, they’re going to go jump ship and agencies like CAL FIRE are ready to take them and ready to charge you, the taxpayer, a whole heck of a lot of money for doing the same thing,” he says.

The feds contract with state agencies like CAL FIRE to protect national forests, which Judd says costs more than retaining their own crews.

He worries a prolonged shutdown could hurt recruitment too, if young firefighters start questioning whether they’ll get paid by an unstable federal government.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Copyright 2019 Boise State Public Radio

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit .

James Dawson joined Boise State Public Radio as the organization's News Director in 2017. He oversees the station's award-winning news department. Most recently, he covered state politics and government for Delaware Public Media since the station first began broadcasting in 2012 as the country's newest NPR affiliate. Those reports spanned two governors, three sessions of the Delaware General Assembly, and three consequential elections. His work has been featured on All Things Considered and NPR's newscast division. An Idaho native from north of the time zone bridge, James previously served as the public affairs reporter and interim news director for the commercial radio network Inland Northwest Broadcasting. His reporting experience included state and local government, arts and culture, crime, and agriculture. He's a proud University of Idaho graduate with a bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media. When he's not in the office, you can find James fly fishing, buffing up on his photography or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season.
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