By Stuart Leavenworth

McClatchy Washington Bureau

Camp Fire tops world’s list of costliest disasters

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Damage from the Camp Fire in Northern California was the costliest disaster in the world last year, topping out at $12.5 billion in insured losses, according to a new report by global reinsurance firm Munich RE.

The Germany-based company said it had expected losses to be lower this year after a record-breaking 2017, in which insurers paid out about $230 billion worldwide. But a number of hurricanes, typhoons and wildfires ruined the outlook.

Last year was the fourth-costliest for insurance companies since 1980, the firm said. Three large wildfires — Carr, Camp and Woolsey — burned regions of California last year and were a major factor in the overall losses incurred by insurers.

The three events collectively accounted for some $24 billion in losses. That was only a fraction of the $160 billion in losses amassed globally. The Camp Fire, however, was also the deadliest blaze in state history, claiming 86 lives in and around the town of Paradise.

Wildfires have been altering the insurance market for some consumers in California. As blazes become more potent and common, some insurance companies are pulling out of risky areas.

— The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee

Training has been halted for thousands of firefighters. The U.S. Forest Service can’t let contracts for needed equipment. In forests across the West, no federal employees are reducing dry fire fuels that feed catastrophic blazes.

These are some of the effects of the federal shutdown on federal firefighters, and experts say the situation could quickly worsen. If the shutdown drags out for several more weeks, federal fire crews won’t be ready for the months ahead, following a 2018 fire season that killed scores of people and destroyed thousands of homes in California and other states.

“This is the second year in a row we’ve had a shutdown right in the middle of the (firefighter) training season,” said Jim Whittington, a former U.S. Bureau of Land Management employee who runs an Oregon-based crisis management consulting company.

“The last thing we want is for fires to break out, and not have the kind of crews we need to field,” said Whittington, head of Whittington & Associates.

As Whittington notes, federal and state firefighting agencies have long used the winter to prepare for upcoming fire seasons. This includes hiring of firefighters, contracting for aircraft, helicopters and food service and training of existing personnel.

Now, much of that is in limbo.

Earlier this month, the Tennessee-Kentucky Wildland Fire Academy announced it was canceling its Jan. 7-19 training courses “because of the partial federal government shutdown.” If the shutdown continues into next week, it could affect firefighter training academies in Washington, Oregon, Colorado and other states, Whittington said.

Each year, all wildland firefighters are required to undergo a refresher course, to keep them current on hazards, equipment and communications methods. But because federal employees are unable to travel to attend the wildfire academies — either as students or instructors — some of the courses are being canceled.

Altogether, more than 30,000 employees are involved with wildland fire suppression at the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior. A Forest Service contingency plan for the shutdown exempts actual firefighters from furloughs, but thousands more staff in support positions are no longer on the job.

Because of inadequate staffing, the U.S. Forest Service has suspended the “pile burns” it conducts seasonally in the Sierra Nevada, Cascades and other mountain ranges, according to community forestry organizations. Such burns are conducted during the winter months, even with snow on the ground, to safely burn off piles of dead timber that crews collect during the warmer months.

Nick Goulette, executive director of the Watershed Center, a community forestry group in Hayfork, California, said he knows of pile burning projects suspended in the Tahoe Basin, outside of Dolores, Colorado, and possibly many other places. Overall, he said, an extended shutdown could leave the Forest Service much less prepared to prevent fires as spring approaches.

“There is no question about that,” Goulette said. “The Forest Service works through all their hiring processes during the winter, and initiates its training regime during these months. … There is no question this jeopardizes readiness as it drags on.”

Responding to the deadly Camp Fire in Northern California last year, President Donald Trump blamed California officials for letting their forests become overgrown. During a Nov. 17 visit to the fire zone, Trump called for more “raking and cleaning” of the forests, presumably a call to thin them of excessive undergrowth.

But because of the shutdown, some California groups have put a hold on prospective projects to reduce wildfire threats. In Tuolumne County, one local organization — Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions — was planning to apply for a state forest management grant to reduce fire hazards in the Stanislaus National Forest. Unable to obtain needed maps and other information from the U.S. Forest Service, the group has sidelined its work, said John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center.

“This is just one small example of how not having federal employees working can lead to the potential loss of outside funding” to reduce wildfire threats, Buckley said in an email.

Not all firefighting agencies have been affected by the federal shutdown. In California, much of the defense against wildfires is led by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire. The agency draws on more than 7,000 permanent and seasonal employees, and has responsibility for 31 million acres statewide.

According to Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean, the federal shutdown “has had no real affect on CAL FIRE whether it be for firefighters or forest management or fuel reduction projects on state land.”

At the federal level, it was not immediately known how many Forest Service employees have been furloughed. Because of the shutdown, no one was manning the agency’s D.C. news office Wednesday.

Even without the shutdown, firefighters were facing an increasingly compressed “window” to prepare for the upcoming fire season, Whittington said. Because of climate change, the fire season has become lengthened, with big fires breaking out late in the fall and starting up again as early as March. “That gives us much less time to prepare,” he said.

Trump injected new uncertainty into California’s wildfire recovery efforts Wednesday, tweeting that he has ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency not to send more disaster funding to state officials “unless they get their act together, which is unlikely.” Neither the White House nor FEMA immediately provided clarification, in response to emails and calls, about whether Trump’s threat was an actual change in policy.

Bluster or not, Trump’s threat alarmed California officeholders from both parties. Two Republicans who represent Paradise, the town devastated in last year’s Camp Fire, in the California Legislature — state Sen. Jim Nielsen and Assemblyman James Gallagher — in a statement called Trump’s tweet “wholly unacceptable.”

California’s U.S. senators, both Democrats, have requested $9 billion in supplemental disaster funding from Congress. The House, newly under Democrats’ control, is planning to vote on a package as soon as next week.

— The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.