Howe Ridge fire

The Howe Ridge fire burns across Lake McDonald in August 2018.

University of Montana fire researchers have to cancel a major workshop because federal participants can’t attend due to the government shutdown.

The three-day conference set for Jan. 29 was to include fire managers from the Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management as well as state, academic and non-governmental organizations.

“We have plane tickets purchased, and we’re going to have to eat $150 change fees if they can come at another time,” said Phil Higuera, the program leader and assistant professor at UM’s Franke College of Forestry and Conservation. “We have hotel blocks and meeting space reserved, and we have to move all that. And the thing is, it’s all federally funded. The whole point is to help fire managers doing their jobs by doing science and transferring that science into their hands.”

President Donald Trump ordered most of the federal government closed on Dec. 22 after Congress would not provide $5.7 billion for construction of a wall on the border with Mexico before the government’s spending authority expired.

About 800,000 federal workers were ordered to leave their posts and were not allowed to use their office computers or communicate about official business while furloughed. Most have gone without pay for 20 days, although a few divisions have been able to use special funds to cover parts of their paychecks and others have been required to report to work without compensation.

The shutdown has had national impacts on science research and collaboration. The 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society started this week in Seattle with nearly a third of its expected 3,100 participants staying home on furlough. The American Meteorological Society (AMS) also met on Monday without its National Weather Service forecasters, many of whom are working without pay at their stations but unable to travel to the conference in Phoenix.

“Virtually all other nations have mechanisms to keep partisan disagreements from closing major segments of their governments for days or weeks,” the AMS Council board wrote in a commentary. “Without such a backstop, every shutdown means that the U.S. loses more ground to overseas competitors, as other nations take the lead in scientific leadership. Our nation cannot afford to undermine its scientific enterprise for the sake of policy disagreement.”

The UM conference was part of a four-year project funded through the federal Joint Fire Science Program. It develops ways fire managers can help communities become more resilient to wildfire and recover more quickly after one occurs. It also looks at ways regional fire incident command teams can cooperate with local experts.

“The managers are hungry to understand how they can better communicate with the public and what they can do to support communities dealing with wildfire,” Higuera said. “Our Plan B is to send out tentative dates for March, April and May, and hope the participants can still participate.”

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