Shutdown Cancels Federally Funded Wildfire Training As Northwest States Scramble To Prepare For Season

Dillon Sanders looks on as a collection of wildland firefighters train for an upcoming season. Sanders is the owner of Inbound LLC in Oakridge, Oregon, which runs 20-person hand crews and 13 engines for fire suppression. CREDIT: TONY SCHICK
Dillon Sanders looks on as a collection of wildland firefighters train. Sanders is the owner of Inbound LLC in Oakridge, Oregon, which runs 20-person hand crews and 13 engines. CREDIT: TONY SCHICK/OPB

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From aviation contracts to deals with vendors and even seasonal hiring, the partial federal government shutdown is cutting into planning and preparation for the 2019 wildfire season in the Northwest.

According to Washington Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, one training for firefighting managers has already been cancelled, because the federal government has been partially shuttered.  

“We rely significantly on state funding for resources,” Franz said. “But we also rely on federal funding, not only on funding to support our own firefighting efforts, but also, we fight our fires in lockstep partnership with federal agencies.”

That’s because almost one-third of the land in Washington is owned and managed by the federal government. In Oregon, it’s more than half.

Citing preparations for the upcoming wildfire season, three U.S. senators from the Northwest are among nearly a dozen who sent a letter to President Donald Trump urging him to “cease the ongoing government shutdown.”

According to the letter, “… federal firefighting agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S, Bureau of Land Management use the winter months to train existing firefighters, hire seasonal firefighters for the upcoming season, and issue contracts for equipment critical to responding to fires.”

A spokesperson at the National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise is currently on furlough and was not available to comment.

Franz said the state doesn’t have a ‘Plan B’ for managing and fighting wildland fire if the government remains shuttered through the fire season.

“We’ll be watching it, and we will probably be looking to identify ways our state can step in,” she said. “We will also be relying on our existing systems that are in place, the challenge is that most of our systems were not built for government to shut down.”

Training Affected

A national wildland fire training course scheduled next week in Redmond, Oregon has been cancelled.

The training on suppression skills was meant for Incident Management Team commanders and general staff. It was to be offered by the Pacific Northwest Training Center, a federally funded entity. It would have drawn students mostly from Oregon and Washington, but also from across the U.S.

On Thursday, Franz plans to unveil Washington’s new 10-year strategic plan for dealing with wildfire. The plan outlines a new partnership between state and federal agencies.

“So, it is a joint agency strategic plan that we are launching,” she said. “We will be discussing as part of that conversation the context of how critical our federal agencies are in partnerships, and how we are going to be looking to take steps for the impacts of this government shutdown as we go into fire season.”

A map showing large fires that have burned so far this year in Washington. The different colored areas represent different land ownership boundaries. (Courtesy of the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center)

What impacts did wildfires have on the Northwest this summer?

Autumn has knocked on our doors and crossed our thresholds. With its arrival comes wetter, colder, darker days — perhaps some pumpkin-flavored treats as well — and hopefully, fewer wildfires. Heavy recent rainfall has dropped the wildfire potential outlook down to normal for the Northwest, according to the National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook.
So, how did this summer fare compared to past fire seasons?