The Trump administration is planning to cut over a thousand jobs — including many wildland firefighting jobs — in what’s thought to be the largest federal jobs cut in a decade. The move comes ahead of another wildfire season and amid threatened halts to financial assistance following deadly fires last year.
The latest attempt in what appears to undermine wildfire preparedness includes ending a federal program that trains young people for jobs including wildfire fighting, while at the same time withholding wildfire reimbursements California officials say are owed from last year. All of this serves to deepen the feud between President Donald Trump and West Coast states over disaster assistance. Meanwhile, multiple states are preparing for another brutal wildfire season based on current federal projections.
In an announcement buried on the Friday before the Memorial Day weekend, the Trump administration announced that it will end a program under the Forest Service, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers (CCCs) train young people between the ages 16 to 24 in rural and disadvantaged areas for jobs including wildland firefighting and forestry, in addition to disaster recovery. The 25 centers are predominantly in the South and West and located on federal lands, with more than 3,000 students employed by the program.
Nine of the centers will close, with another 16 set to move to state control or to be taken over by private entities, as control of the program shifts to the Labor Department. Centers in Washington, Oregon, Kentucky, Montana, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Virginia, and North Carolina are all slated for closure. Roughly 1,100 jobs will be lost — potentially the largest federal workforce reduction in a decade.
“As USDA looks to the future, it is imperative that the Forest Service focus on and prioritize our core natural resource mission to improve the condition and resilience of our Nation’s forests, and step away from activities and programs that are not essential to that core mission,” USDA head Sonny Perdue wrote in a letter to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta on Friday.
The program has suffered from safety issues, along with inconsistencies in job placement. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed dismay over the massive job cuts, while union leaders have slammed the decision as “a coordinated attack on the most vulnerable populations in the country.”
In a statement following the announcement, National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) National President Randy Erwin lamented the potential implications for wildfire fighting in particular.
“[O]nly the CCC’s [sic] train students to serve as wildland forest firefighters to help with fire suppression operations during fire season,” Erwin said. “There is no plan for this loss of resources to the country which has seen more powerful fires with each passing year.”
Wildfires have become significantly more deadly and destructive in recent years, with the season now considered to run virtually year-round amid worsening climate impacts and urban sprawl.
According to Wildfire Today, one of the CCCs slated to close in Kentucky sent personnel on 40 assignments in 2016 alone. And a review by NFFE found that more than 300 students provided more than 200,000 hours of wildfire-related support in 2017. It is unclear, however, what the loss of the CCCs might mean for efforts to combat wildfires during this year’s fire season.
That reduction in wildfire assistance comes amid ongoing sparring between Trump and California. Last November, the president largely blamed the state for its wildfire problems, accusing California of “gross mismanagement of the forests” and threatening to withhold federal aid. Now, the Forest Service is accusing California of overbilling with its $72 million reimbursement request, money the state owes its fire agencies for last year’s work on federal lands.
The Forest Service is demanding proof of “actual expenses” for the services rendered on public lands and has launched an audit into the California Fire Assistance Agreement (CFAA), which reimburses the state for such costs. That means the federal government is now withholding more than $9 million of the total amount requested from California, even as the state stares down another wildfire season.
The 2018 wildfire season is connected with at least 100 deaths and involved the efforts of thousands of firefighters in California alone. This year could be equally dire, with western parts of Washington already prepared for an exceptionally bad season. That area has seen an abnormally dry year so far, with outdoor burns already reported throughout the month of March, which is unusual.
“Scared,” Dave Skrinde, a fire district chief in Washington, told local reporters, speaking about the wildfire season. “That’s my gut feeling.”
And according to the National Interagency Fire Center, Washington isn’t the only state that needs to be on heightened alert for wildfires over the next few months. Areas across the West — including parts of Oregon, which is losing a CCC — are at risk. Warming temperatures in Alaska, meanwhile, have made the state more vulnerable to wildfires, with southeast Alaska currently experiencing its first recorded extreme drought in history.