Why The Government Shutdown Increased Idaho’s Wildfire And Flood Danger

Oct 21, 2013

This mudslide last month was on land burned by the Elk Complex fire. It took out a section of road and ended in the South Fork Boise River.
Credit Mountain Home Ranger District / fs.usda.gov

Federal employees are scrambling to catch up on things left undone for nearly three weeks. That’s after tens of thousands of workers were furloughed during the partial government shutdown, which ended last Thursday.

But on Idaho’s public lands, some work can’t be caught up. The shutdown's timing was particularly bad for wildfire prevention and rehabilitation.

Federal agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management always have a lot to do in a narrow window between the end of the fire season and the onset of winter. Boise National Forest official David Olson says fall is when they conduct important prescribed burns; the cool weather keeps the man-made fires under control. Olson says they were just about to start that process when the shutdown began Oct. 1.

“Not being able to reduce fuels through prescribed burning increases the potential for a larger, hotter wildfire during the summer months,” Olson says.

The government shutdown has also pushed back rehabilitation on land burned from wildfires this summer. Olson says they need to stabilize the soil impacted by the Elk Complex Fire, especially near the towns of Pine and Featherville.

“There’s a variety of different things that need to get done that would mitigate the potential for some kind of emergency situation such as a mudslide or a flash flood or a road getting washed out,” Olson says.

There’s a similar situation in the Wood River Valley. Forest Service and BLM officials tell the Times News they’re scrambling to rehab land burned by the Beaver Creek Fire to decrease the chance for mudslides and flooding near Hailey and Ketchum.

What gets done now depends on the weather. Olson says the Boise National Forest usually has to stop land rehabilitation work by mid-November, as winter snow begins to fall.

Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio