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Shutdown Hampers Federal Firefighting Agency’s Preparations for Wildfire Season

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Alaska Fire Service/Mike McMillan
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The federal-government shutdown has entered its 13th day, and the Alaska Fire Service like numerous other federal agencies has run out of money and furloughed all but essential employees. And although wildfires are unlikely to bust out anytime soon, the shutdown is hampering the firefighting agency's planning and preparation for the coming fire season.

Wildland firefighting may be the last thing on the minds of most Alaskans in the middle of winter. But for workers with state and federal agencies charged with managing the fires in Alaska, the busy season is just beginning.

“There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes, even in December and January,” says Tim Mowry, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Forestry, the state firefighting agency works closely with the federal Alaska Fire Service. Mowry shares an office on Fort Wainwright with his federal counterparts – but he says he hasn’t seen them much for the past couple of weeks.

“Since the shutdown has happened, there’s essentially two employees here at the Alaska Fire Service – both state employees, myself and the state operations forester, and everybody else is on furlough,” he said. “And it’s like a morgue here. There’s nobody here, there’s no janitorial services.”

Mowry says he can’t speak for the Alaska Fire Service. But he says the state and federal agencies work closely throughout the year to coordinate their operations. And he says workers with both agencies usually are busy at this time of year putting together plans and preparations for responding to this summer’s wildfires.

“They’re working on cooperator agreements with local fire departments that we have in communities around the state, so that when there’s a fire we can call on them to help us out and they are reimbursed for their time and use of equipment,” he said.

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Credit KUAC file photo
Smoke billows from the Stuart Creek 2 fire, which was ignited by artillery exercises on the Army's Yukon Training Area in 2013. The fire burned some 80,000 acres northeast of Fairbanks and forced more than thousand people to evacuate. It cost $5.5 million to extinguish. Since then, the Alaska Fire Service has redoubled efforts to reduce vegetation on training ranges that fuels wildfires.

The Alaska Fire Service also must coordinate with the Army and Air Force on prescribed burns on training ranges and other operations to reduce the chance that a wildfire sparked by a live-fire exercise won’t spread out of control. Mowry says those detailed plans must be worked out in conjunction with military agencies and their range-training schedules.

“All those plans for that have to be in place months before it’s going to happen, because they have to go through an approval process,” he said. “And anything you’re dealing with like that, especially with military, it stretches out a little longer.”

Mowry says both Alaska Fire Service and state Forestry also usually are working out training sessions for firefighters this time of year, on everything from basic skills to more advanced specialties.

“It takes months to prepare the schedule of classes and putting applications in for different employees who may need those qualifications or need those classes.”

Mowry says he’s concerned the shutdown is going to make it difficult for his federal firefighting comrades to catch up on lost time, especially if the Congress and President Trump are unable to come to an agreement that will enable all the furloughed employees to return to work.

“This shutdown is definitely going to have an impact on that, because people have been out for two weeks now, and any work that they were doing has been put on hold. And when they get back, it’s going to take a week for them to get back on their feet.”

Mowry says he hopes the impasse is resolved soon, because the first firefighting-training classes will begin in mid-February.