Government shutdown causes concern over Routt County wildfire preparation
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – While the partial government shutdown has not yet directly affected Routt County firefighters, it has posed concerns about the county’s preparations for this year’s fire season.
Each year, officials from the county’s fire districts meet with state and federal agencies in early February to establish an operating plan that coordinates all of the different agencies’ resources in the event of a wildfire.
If the shutdown continues past the meeting date, it could cause a lack of coordination among the various levels of wildfire response agencies at the county, state and federal government levels.
With no end in sight for the partial government shutdown, the longest in the country’s history, it is unsure how this year’s wildfire preparations will pan out. This has led several U.S. senators to call on President Donald Trump directly to end the shutdown.
David “Mo” DeMorat, director of Routt County Emergency Operations, said the annual joint operating plan meeting on Feb. 7 is a vital part of the county’s wildfire response.
“Without that updated plan, we may not have as clear an understanding of which agencies will provide support, what that support will be and how that support will be paid for,” he said.
Even without an updated plan, DeMorat emphasized that in the event of a wildfire, resources like helicopters and trucks would still be available from the county and state.
For that reason, DeMorat is not yet worried about preparing Routt County fire districts for the upcoming fire season. They conduct most of their trainings and wildfire prevention projects locally without federal support.
The shutdown has caused a standstill for federal fire crews. The winter months are usually when agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service conduct fire-prevention projects like forest thinning and prescribed burns, when fire danger is low.
It is unclear how the federal government would respond to a wildfire if the shutdown continues through the spring.
“The time I would start getting really concerned is when we start getting into fire season,” DeMorat said.
Concerns over wildfire preparation led U.S. Sen. Michael Bennett and 11 Democratic colleagues to sign a letter Tuesday urging Trump to end the shutdown.
“The failure to reopen the government puts people’s lives at risk by undermining their ability to respond to wildfires and will only serve to delay critical forest restoration and safety projects,” the senators wrote.
Local fire season typically begins in May. DeMorat said it is too early to predict how severe this year’s season will be compared to previous years.
“We have been getting decent snow, but the amount of snow is less of a concern than how quickly it melts,” he said.
The 2018 fire season was one of the worst in state history. At least 1,585 wildfires scorched more than 431,600 acres and damaged about 450 homes.
“Unless these firefighter trainings and forest health projects resume soon, the health and safety of our communities, mostly in rural areas, will be put at risk during this government shutdown,” the senators concluded in their letter. “We strongly urge you to agree to reopen the government.”
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At 7 p.m. Thursday, the Yampa River’s temperature was 72 degrees at a spot in the Chuck Lewis Wildlife Area south of Steamboat. That’s about 15 degrees higher than the typical average.