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How badly did the government shutdown harm wildfire prep? Democrats want answers

9 most destructive wildfires in California history

The Camp Fire has broken historic records for destruction. See which wildfires have burned the most structures in California history.
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The Camp Fire has broken historic records for destruction. See which wildfires have burned the most structures in California history.

In the wake of a deadly fire season, California lawmakers want to know how much the 35-day government shutdown hindered the U.S. Forest Service’s preparation for the next big wildfire.

They’re pressing President Donald Trump’s administration to account for how much forest management, firefighter training and federal contract work was delayed or canceled because of the shutdown. They also want to know what is being done to make up for lost time.

A majority of the California delegation is demanding answers to that question in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue sent Friday. The 42 lawmakers who signed the letter are all Democrats.

“Given the nearly year-round threat of fire, the winter months are critical for forest managers to be able to get a head start on clearing dead and dry fuels,” they wrote. “Such preparation can be the difference between a contained fire and a conflagration that leaves thousands homeless and countless business destroyed.”

About 30,000 federal employees are in involved in fire suppression. The shutdown exempted firefighters, but it halted firefighter training. It also prevented agencies from awarding work to contractors that clear brush and carry out prescribed burns on federal land.

Separately, the Democratic-controlled House Agriculture Committee also plans to investigate whether the shutdown harmed preparations for the coming western wildfire season, said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

“We’re trying to make an assessment of how much was lost,” Costa said. “We’ve heard different reports of the 35 days that were lost and I think we have to determine how much ground we have to make up to try to suggest to the Secretary of Agriculture how to deal with the potential impacts.”

“We always seem to be playing catch up, and this just further exacerbates what has always been a difficult situation in managing our forests,” he added.

Stanton Florea, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service in California, said they currently can’t quantify what was lost.

“We’re asking our 18 national forests that we manage in California to get back to us next week in terms of reassessing priorities and what we can accomplish for the remainder of this fiscal year,” Florea said.

President Donald Trump was critical of forest management efforts in California during the shutdown, tweeting Jan. 9 that he would withhold federal money meant to help victims unless California officials “get their act together.” The shutdown was triggered in December over a disagreement between Trump and congressional Democrats over funding for a border wall.

Six of the 10 most damaging wildfires in California history took place in the last two years, including the Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 86 people in November. The state boosted its spending on wildfire prevention by hundreds of millions of dollars over the past year, with new Gov. Gavin Newsom pledging even more resources.

The letter from the California delegation asks Perdue to give an accounting of the following losses on wildfire prevention efforts during the shutdown:

  • The estimated number of acres of hazardous fuels in California that should have been cleared during the period of the shutdown

  • Any changes to the hiring process for California-based firefighting personnel due the shutdown and a status update on 2019 hiring efforts

  • The extent of activities that should have been performed by contractors who were furloughed

  • Any and all wildfire-related training activities that were delayed or canceled

  • The steps the Department is undertaking to make up for the lost time to ensure that preparedness is not harmed and any associated costs with such accelerated efforts

They did not provide a deadline for the answers to their questions.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Oroville, who did not sign the letter and whose district was devastated by the Camp Fire, told McClatchy he thought forest management losses were “probably minimal” since there had been wet weather and snow in the northern half of California during the shutdown period, which isn’t conducive to certain types of forest management.

“It shouldn’t be as bad as perhaps projected. We need to do the hustle on this a lot anyway, we have inventory we need to catch up on,” LaMalfa said. “That’s going to require not just what would’ve been done during this period, but also the work we need to be doing to boost up the speed of the U.S. Forest Service and the USDA pushes them to do it.”

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.