The impact of the longest government shutdown is beginning to snowball, having left hundreds of thousands of federal employees without paychecks, threatening to delay tax refunds and closing some national parks because of vandalism, piles of garbage and lack of staff.
It also could raise the risk of yet another devastating wildfire season in Colorado by halting wildfire preparedness and forest health projects.
“We have got a lot of wildfire mitigation and preparedness work to do right now before the summer, and sidelining people who do that work is not good for Colorado,” said Mike Lester, a state forester with the Colorado State Forest Service.
It’s particularly critical given that more than 85 percent of the state is in some sort of drought, and the wildfire season is two months longer than in 1970.
During the government shutdown, U.S. Forest Service employees deemed essential are working without pay, including those who are “critical to 2019 fire suppression,” the Forest Service website says.
However, forest thinning, prescribed burning and other wildfire mitigation are in jeopardy.
When snow falls and atmospheric conditions are just right in the winter, as they were Friday, foresters can conduct wildfire mitigation projects, most notably burning slash piles, Lester said. The incineration of the tepees of stacked timber scattered across Colorado national forests decrease the density of vegetation so that, if a fire ran through, it burns at a lower intensity.
Cooler blazes are much easier to control for firefighters and more closely mimic naturally occurring fires that sparked in forests before human intervention, Dawn Sanchez, the fire prevention technician for the Pikes Peak Ranger District, told The Gazette in October.
“Pile burns are one way to effectively reduce fuel-loading,” Lester said. “But the windows for pile burning are limited because you need a combination of snow on the ground — which is iffy in Front Range — and the right atmospheric conditions. When you can’t address them, that’s a serious missed opportunity.”
Although many of the state Forest Service’s mitigation projects are continuing as planned, their 107 employees are limited since much of their work involves the Forest Service, which manages about 47 percent of the land in Colorado.
“All of that work slows down because our federal partners are a big chunk of this,” Lester said. “(The state Forest Service) will be working hard like we always have, but we can’t communicate or coordinate projects.”
Neither the Pikes Peak Ranger District nor the Forest Service’s national communications office was able to comment on specific operations such as winter fire mitigation projects.
“The agency is assessing and prioritizing the activities and programs we are able to maintain while in shutdown status,” Forest Service spokesman John Haynes said in an email.
Federal officials also will be missing from Colorado’s interagency wildfire operation planning meetings, said Division of Wildfire Prevention and Control spokesman Caley Fisher.
“We’re going to ensure that we have as much planning done for the 2019 wildfire season as possible from state and local side,” Fisher said. “When the government shutdown ends, we’ll then bring in federal partners.”
Some wildland firefighters also aren’t able to attend required annual training courses because they are unable to travel. The winter academy hosted between Jan. 7 and 13 at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs by the Colorado Wildland Fire & Incident Management will run as scheduled, but a smoke management course slated for Jan. 14 to 18 in Lakewood was canceled.
Twitter: @lizmforster Phone: 636-0193