By Gillian Flaccus

The Associated Press

PORTLAND — Just two months after a wildfire wiped out Paradise, California, officials are gearing up for this year’s fire season and fear the government shutdown could make it more difficult than one of the worst in history.

The winter months are critical for wildfire managers.

They use the break from the flames to prepare for the next onslaught, but much of that effort has ground to a halt on U.S. land because employees are furloughed. Firefighting training courses are being canceled from Tennessee to Oregon, piles of dead trees are untended in federal forests and controlled burns to thin dry vegetation aren’t getting done.

Although the furloughs only affect federal employees, the collaborative nature of wildland firefighting means the pain of the four-week-long shutdown is having a ripple effect — from firefighters on the ground to federal contractors and top managers who control the firefighting strategy.

State and local crews who need training classes are scrambling without federal instructors. Conservation groups that work with the U.S. Forest Service to plan wildfire-prevention projects on federal lands are treading water. Annual retreats where local, state and federal firefighting agencies strategize are being called off.

The fire season starts as early as March in the southeastern United States, and by April, fires pop up in the Southwest. Last year’s most devastating fire leveled the Northern California town of Paradise just before Thanksgiving, leaving a few months to prepare between seasons.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand that while there’s not fire going on out there right now, there’s a lot of really critical work going on for the fire season — and that’s not getting done,” said Michael DeGrosky, chief of the Fire Protection Bureau for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

It’s especially important with climate change making wildfire seasons longer, deadlier and more destructive.

DeGrosky was supposed to be teaching a course this week for firefighters who want to qualify for the command staff of a fire management team. But the class was canceled without instructors from federal agencies.

Similar classes were called off in Oregon and Tennessee, and others face the same fate as the shutdown drags on. President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats are at odds over funding for a border wall.

A dozen senators from Oregon, California, New Mexico, Washington, Colorado, Nevada, West Virginia and Michigan sent a letter this week to Trump warning that the shutdown would put lives at risk this coming fire season. Classes necessary for fire incident managers, smokejumpers and hotshot crews are in jeopardy, the senators said.

Smokejumpers parachute into remote forests to battle blazes not accessible by firefighters on the ground and hotshot crews are small groups of elite firefighters trained to battle the most ferocious flames.

The winter is when seasonal firefighters apply for jobs, get the required drug tests and move to where they will train and work. In many cases, there’s no one to answer the phone or process the applications, and potential recruits may decide to work elsewhere to avoid the hassle.

“Even if the shutdown ends and we start hiring people, we will have missed the cream of the crop,” DeGrosky said.

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