Will federal wildland firefighters still work if there is a government shutdown?

Will federal wildland firefighters still work if there is a government shutdown?

08 April 2011

published by www.examiner.com

USA — As a result of the failure of members of the United States Congress to do their jobs and pass a federal budget, there is a chance that hundreds of thousands of “non-essential” federal employees will be furloughed. At least one wildland firefighter who works for a national forest in California has received an official notification that he is not “essential” and will not be allowed to work if the government is shut down. If this is the policy throughout the five federal land management agencies, it is a change from the shutdowns in the 1990′s.

We talked with Karen Miranda Gleason, the National Fire Outreach Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Boise, ID. She pointed us to a Department of Interior web page that has links to contingency plans for the DOI agencies. Here are some excerpts from those plans, plus additional information, that address wildfire management during a possible government shutdown.

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service

“Designated fire management staff are excepted for the purpose of protecting of life and property and to provide emergency services. The need for fire management staff varies across the Nation according to weather and season. Positions will be excepted for basic protection of life and property; however, these positions are not sufficient for regular fire management activities such as prescribed burning. Therefore, fire management activities will be limited to preparedness and wildfire suppression on Service lands. Units within their fire season will retain essential fire staff sufficient for minimal Initial Attack capability on site (per staffing plans and preparedness levels).”

Ms. Gleason told us at 2:45 p.m. on April 8 that decisions about which employees on the local level will be furloughed will be determined by the local refuge or hatchery manager. All of their national fire management staff will be furloughed except for the national chief. This includes their fire planner, fire ecologist, budget and administrative staff, fire training staff, and the GIS and IT specialists.


“A limited number of National Park Service employees needed to secure parks and provide law enforcement, emergency services, and firefighting are exempt from the furlough.” Another document includes this: “Emergency responders, including fire management, EMS, and law enforcement personnel, not required for essential activities will be placed on furlough but may be called back to duty if an emergency situation arises.” And this: “Wildland fire personnel required for active fires or for monitoring areas currently under a fire watch (currently 100 employees nationwide) will remain on duty.”

UPDATE at 2:50 p.m. April 8, 2011: we talked with Roberta D’Amico, Communications Director for the NPS in Boise. She said the furlough of firefighters will vary around the country depending on which phase of the fire season they are in. Decisions about which park-based firefighters to furlough will be made by the Park Superintendents, after consulting with the Regional Fire Management Officers. In the NPS’s Boise office, only two positions will continue to be staffed, the national Fire Director and the Aviation Manager. The 83 NPS firefighters and 5 engines currently assigned on fires, prescribed fires, and severity assignments will not be affected by the shutdown until after they are released and return to their home unit.


Their “Contingency Plan Spreadsheet” shows some national and regional office personnel that will continue to work, as well as 26 field Fire Management Officers.


The BLM’s contingency plan: “The states and centers would maintain about 500 FTE on-call for safety, fire, Hazmat/emergency services, support services, and other critical functions. The BLM has approximately 10,800 employees and would furlough 10,200 FTE during the funding lapse.” and… ”The following officials will be placed on an on-call status: Deputy State Directors, Fire Management Officers, Budget Officers, Contracting, Personnel Officers, Safety Officers.”

We talked with Jeff Krauss of the BLM Pubic Affairs Office who told us that some firefighters will be “on call”, which means they will not be working, but could be called in to work if it is decided that they are needed. Who knows, if laid off, they might be in Mexico and not available at the beck and call of their agency. We are trying to get more information about how many and which categories of firefighters will be furloughed. When we receive it, we will post it here.

UPDATE at 2:20 p.m. April 8, 2011. We talked with Randy Earbley in the BLM office in Boise. He told us that some firefighters will be furloughed in parts of the country where they are not really in their fire season yet, but in other areas, such as in the southwest, fewer firefighters will be furloughed.


Their office in D.C. is inundated with inquiries and refuses to provide any answers via the phone. We received an email from an agency official that included a link to this contingency plan, which states that one of the activities which will continue will be “Fire Suppression including fire fighters and all necessary equipment costs to protect life and property”. This is very vague.

The San Bernardino National Forest in southern California normally staffs five engines on the forest at this time of the year prior to their summer/fall fire season. On one of their districts, of their 10 engine crews that normally have 50 employees this time of the year, all but 7 employees will be furloughed. On a hot shot crew, 7 of their 8 employees will be furloughed, and 3 of the district’s 5 Chiefs will be furloughed. All 4 of their prevention people will be furloughed.

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