Western wildfires hamper staffing of Utah federal offices

Western wildfires hamper staffing of Utah federal offices

22 September 2015

published by www.standard.net

USA — Large, wildland fires have raged through the West all summer, and it’s burning local federal offices at both ends.

Utah has mostly avoided any major wildfires this season. But through National Interagency Fire Center partnerships, officers from public lands offices throughout the region have deployed to help. That leaves far less staff to manage the day-to-day operations for the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offices in Utah.

The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Box Elder County, for example, announced it will need to close its Wildlife Education Center for one day on Saturday, Sept. 26. The refuge is managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, and several officers traveled to Idaho and California to help with ongoing fires. The remaining staff is working overtime and there’s no one left to pick up the Saturday shift.

“This was an unusual year in that resources were found scarce to cover all the fire needs on the Western Front,” said Kathi Stopher with the refuge. “This was a decision of last resort.”

Around one-third of refuge staff has deployed at least once this summer to help with fires. Stopher herself went to central Idaho in August to help with training.

“It does create an impact, and this time of year we’re trying to address field work for biology and maintenance as well as serving our visiting public through the visitor center,” she said. “It’s only the wildlife education center that we’re closing for the day. The auto tour route will remain open.”

The Forest Service is one of the largest federal agencies in northern Utah. It has a larger staff that can fill in the gaps when officers deploy to fight fires, but it still leaves local offices scrambling.

“We’ve had a lot of people out this year, but we’ve not been closing any offices as a result,” said Kevin Pfister, the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest fire management officer.

Pfister doesn’t have exact statistics on how many employees from the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache forest workers have traveled to help with wildfires. But he said they’ve taken a significant share of the forest’s local wildland firefighters, office workers and natural resources officers.

“In every resource area and every program, there have been affects for sure,” he said. “We have to keep dropping in and helping out, getting as much of normal work done as we can.”

The typical deployment lasts 14 days, not including travel time. Some workers return home to Utah, rest up a few days, then return north and west for another two-week stint. It’s grueling work, and taxing on local districts, but Pfister said the interagency cooperation is critical.

“The whole system, once it gets this busy, relies on anyone with training and qualifications pitching in locally and nationally to help out,” he said. “If people did not do that, we would not have enough resources to manage these fires.”

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