Feds ready for fire season despite shutdown

CHEYENNE – Federal agencies in Wyoming say they are ready to deal with the upcoming wildfire seasons, despite the 35-day federal government shutdown at the beginning of the year that delayed preparation.

During a Wednesday press briefing on Wyoming’s upcoming fire season, both the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service said their agencies had been able to fully prepare, despite losing several weeks on the job.

Mary Jo Rugwell, state director for the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming, said when it became clear the shutdown would extend for some time, her agency began to find rollover funds to start their preparations.

“Typically, a shutdown would have kept us from doing anything,” Rugwell said. “(We) wanted to make sure we were ready for fire season. So we were able to get people to come back when we realized we were going to be out for more than just a few days.

“It’s very important for us that we are ready, well before the first fires start to burn. Because there’s a lot of training in order for firefighters to be safe and do a good job."

Brian Ferebee, regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service, said during the shutdown his agency brought back a number of first-responders to continue training that had been scheduled. They also prioritized hiring for the upcoming season so as not to delay their training, as well.

“We continued to move out with our local county officials when it came to our annual operating meetings so we could continue to have those conversations,” Ferebee said. “(We wanted to) make sure that while we were being furloughed, we would still going to be prepared and ready.”

What type of season the federal, state and local firefighting agencies will deal with this summer will depend on weather conditions during the next few months. A wet winter and spring has compressed this year’s wildfire season.

“Around this time last year, we had the Badger Creek Fire (and) we had several other large fires burning,” said Bill Crapser, state forester with the Wyoming State Forestry Division. “What happens with the fuels, and whether it's a late fire season ... actually really all depends on what type of weather we see for the next two months.”

Those wet months have produced plenty of greenery, which, if the weather becomes hot and dry, could result in plenty of fuel for potential wildfires, Gov. Mark Gordon said.

“We hope it continues to be a great year for our livestock industry and for the folks out camping. But it's really important we are prepared,” Gordon said. “We’re prepared for the fire season.”

Crapser said while local, state and federal partners were trained and ready, he emphasized to the assembled firefighters at the news conference the importance of being safe in the field.

This Sunday marks the sixth anniversary of the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona that killed 19 hotshot firefighters, and Crapser used the anniversary to emphasize the importance of public and firefighter safety.

“It is inherently dangerous business all these folks are in. The folks that are actually on helicopters, on engines, I’d remind you it’s an inherently dangerous business,” Crapser said. “There’s very little out there that’s worth killing someone over and to keep that in mind as you’re on initial attack and even on extended attack.”