Oregon lawmakers concerned hiring freeze could hamper wildfire fighting efforts

 Oregon lawmakers told the White House on Friday that its action freezing federal employee hiring for 90 days raises significant questions about having enough seasonal workers to fight forest fires in Oregon and nationwide.

The warning from Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley, Rep. Peter DeFazio, Earl Blumenauer and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici comes on the heels of President Donald Trump’s presidential memorandumregarding the 2.1 million civilians in the federal workforce. The hiring freeze, which does not apply to military personnel, is supposed to be lifted in 90 days, at which time the Trump administration would begin implementing a long-term plan to permanently reduce the size of the federal workforce. Anxiety is rampant among federal workers, particularly minorities.

“Without staff in place to prepare for the wildfire season, which is starting earlier and earlier every year due to climate change and years of severe drought conditions across the country, our forests and communities are put in harm’s way,” the Oregon delegation wrote in their letter to the president. “Seasonal hiring will be starting soon and uncertainty about how to proceed could have serious impacts on public safety.”

The lawmakers said their letter follows calls from Oregon communities worried about how the hiring freeze applies to permanent, temporary and seasonal workers hired by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or other land management agency to fight wildfires or fulfill other duties necessary to prevent wildfires.

Staff at the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest said all questions on the hiring freeze were to be addressed to the Washington Office.

“We’re waiting for direction from the Office of Personnel Management,” Babete Anderson, media spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, said.

Wyden said it’s too early to know exactly what might happen in the next 90 days.

“The administration hasn’t provided details about how this hiring freeze will work on the ground in Oregon,” Wyden said. “I’m concerned that even a 90-day hiring freeze could interfere with preparing for fire season and hiring wildland firefighters before fire season hits. I’ll be pushing the administration to make clear these essential, brave men and women should be exempt from this order, and available to safeguard communities in Oregon and across the West.”

If firefighting is protected from the freeze, there are still thousands of recreation, fish, wildlife, timber and range employees whose summer jobs may be up in the air.

Trump’s memorandum states that “no vacant positions existing at noon on Jan. 22, 2017, may be filled and no new positions may be created, except in limited circumstances,” although the freeze does not apply to military personnel.

“The head of any executive department or agency may exempt from the hiring freeze any positions that it deems necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities,” it reads, adding the head of the Office of Personnel Management can allow for hiring “where those exemptions are otherwise necessary.”

Trump instructed the head of the Office of Personnel Management to “recommend a long-term plan to reduce the size of the Federal Government’s workforce through attrition” within 90 days, at which point the hiring freeze would expire.

Officials at the Pentagon said last week that it wasn’t yet clear whether the freeze would exempt civilian Defense Department personnel, which number roughly 750,000, or only uniformed employees. One Defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to address internal discussions, said that Pentagon lawyers were examining the directive.

Veterans — who make up 31 percent of the federal workforce — could also be disproportionately affected by the move because they receive a hiring preference when it comes to federal jobs. One unit of the Pentagon, according to an official who asked for anonymity to discuss personnel matters, is in the process of hiring between 20 and 30 veterans and is now looking at whether to put the hires on hold.