Senators seek answers from Forest Service after shutdown

A group of senators is seeking answers from the U.S. Forest Service on their readiness for the upcoming wildfire year.

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., led a group of their colleagues Wednesday in seeking answers from the U.S. Forest Service on the recent Trump shutdown and its impact on the agency’s critical wildfire prevention and fuels treatment efforts — answers that are especially pressing with the threat of another shutdown looming, according to a press release issued by Wyden’s office.

In addition to the three leading senators, the letter to U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen was signed by U.S. Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo.

The letter highlighted the importance of the agency’s hazardous fuels work, as well as the narrow window of opportunity to complete often weather-dependent efforts, in preparing communities for the upcoming fire season.

“While climate change is a significant driver of these severe wildfires, high fuel loads also contribute to their deadliness. Western states count heavily on reducing hazardous fuels to lessen the threat of wildfires to their communities,” the senators wrote. “As the largest landowner in many western states, the federal government has a duty to ensure that this essential forest work gets done.

“Congress has repeatedly increased appropriations for hazardous fuels work, funding hazardous fuels at $430 million for Fiscal Year 2018, which is used for critical fire preparedness activities and fuels treatments like prescribed burns and forest thinning,” the letter continued. “Prescribed burns, in particular, are weather-dependent and have a narrow window of opportunity for fuels treatment, relying on cool, damp weather conditions that occur in winter months. We have seen reports that the government shutdown curtailed the ability of the Forest Service to conduct fire prevention and fuels treatment activities.”

Christiansen was given 30 days to respond to the nine questions included in the letter, which included requests for information on hazardous fuels treatments affected by the shutdown and plans to ensure their timely completion, firefighting hiring and training, fire research and the economic impacts on tribes.

“We received the letter yesterday that raised several questions regarding delays in hazardous fuels treatments due to the lapse in funding as well as the impacts the shutdown had on preparations for the upcoming fire season,” said Babete Anderson, national press officer for the Forest Service, in response to a News inquiry on Feb. 14.

“We will be providing a response to the questions and concerns to the 12 Senators,” she said. “The agency is currently assessing impacts across all regions and looking for opportunities to perform treatments before the fire season begins. In addition, the Forest Service continued the hiring process for seasonal firefighters and anticipates being fully staffed, trained and ready to respond to wildfires. The Forest Service is moving forward with fire preparedness efforts and anticipates having the resources available to protect life and property during the 2019 wildfire year.”

The U.S. Forest Service was one of the agencies closed during the 35-day partial federal government shutdown. The government was reopened approximately three weeks ago, on the condition that it would shut down again if a border security deal wasn’t signed by Feb. 15.

As of press time on Feb. 14, President Trump was expected to sign a funding bill.