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Government Shutdown Halts Montana Wildfire Training

A firefighter stands in front of flames from a wildfire. Stock photo.
Firefighter in front of a wildfire.

Wildfire training sessions for firefighters in Montana are being called off because of the government shutdown. That has state officials worried about whether they’ll be prepared for next fire season. 

Michael DeGrosky has been scheduled for months to teach a wildfire training course in Missoula next week.

"And we just found out yesterday that that session’s been canceled."

DeGrosky is the chief of the Fire Protection Bureau at Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Training sessions in topics like 'Smoke Management’ and ‘Incident Leadership’ are required for firefighters to get qualifications and certifications for the coming fire season.

But if the government shutdown continues, DeGrosky says he’s concerned Montana won’t have enough qualified firefighters to step into management positions.

"Some of the training sessions that are being canceled feed people into our incident management teams, and our incident management teams have some critical shortages in them. So it just puts us behind in that process of developing a pipeline of succession."

Dozens of training courses, like the one DeGrosky was scheduled to teach at the Northern Rockies Training Center in Missoula, could be canceled in the coming weeks in Montana. It’s still unclear just how many firefighters could be affected. Calls to the Training Center, which is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, now roll to voicemail since its employees are furloughed in the federal shutdown.

An estimated 7,200 federal employees in Montana are either furloughed, or working without pay since the shutdown began on December 22. And DeGrosky says that ripples into state and local government agencies like his.

“One thing that people don’t quite understand is that fire in Montana is an interagency endeavor. Almost everything we do is a partnership between state, local, and federal government.”

DeGrosky says trying to reschedule wildfire training sessions is tricky since it involves coordinating with all the participants - roughly thirty in each course - as well as busy instructors.

And training isn’t the only aspect of fire management being impacted by the shutdown.

A three-day conference at the University of Montana to help fire managers was scheduled for the end of the month and is now canceled because federal employees can’t attend.

And according to DeGrosky, the Northern Rockies Coordination Center, which usually has up to 10 employees at this time of year to update manuals and protocols for the coming fire season, is down to a skeletal crew of just two state employees.

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