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By James Rainey and Phil Helsel

Controlled burns have been put on hold. Fire training sessions have been canceled. The hiring of hundreds of seasonal firefighters has been delayed.

The nation’s wildland fire service — trying to regroup this winter after two of the biggest and deadliest fire seasons on record — has instead been cast into a state of anxiety by the three-week-old partial government shutdown. That’s because some firefighters with the Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management are among the approximately 800,000 government employees either furloughed or working without a guarantee of pay.

The shutdown has affected hundreds of regular fire and support personnel at those agencies, along with seasonal “hotshots” and others who swell the fire lines during the forest and brush fire emergencies that have swept through the West with increasing intensity nearly every summer and fall, according to wildfire experts. A Senate Appropriations Committee report estimates that as many as 5,000 Forest Service firefighters may be working without pay.

Analysts say the sidelining of some firefighters comes at a difficult time because of the increasing length and arduousness of the fire calendar. After battling what was then the largest fire in California history in 2017, the Thomas Fire, and the deadliest fire in California history in November, the Camp Fire, firefighters do not appreciate going untrained and unpaid.

A member of the Bureau of Land Management Silver State Hotshot crew from Elko, Nevada, walks through a burn operation on the southern flank of the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park on Aug. 30, 2013.Mike McMillan / U.S. Forest Service via AP file

“Folks in the fire and land management agencies place a high value on the mission,” said Jim Whittington, a more than 20-year employee with the Forest Service, Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, who became a consultant in 2017. “They signed up and are passionate about public lands, public safety and doing the right thing. To them, this shutdown is a real kick in the pants.”

Some furloughed employees see an additional irony because the shutdown has delayed fire mitigation and training at a time when President Donald Trump has attacked California for poor forest management. But Whittington said most of his former co-workers are determined not to get involved in politics.

“We have seen three or four tweets on wildland fires and all of them have been met with raised eyebrows and some sense of disbelief in the wildland fire community,” Whittington said of Trump’s Twitter posts. “But we have lots of Republicans and lots of Democrats in our world. We have hippies and cowboys and hunters and poets. When we come together, we don’t care about any of that political stuff. We are all working together on whatever incident we are on.”

Regional forest officials in the West either did not answer their phones this week or referred calls to the service’s parent agency in Washington, the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A spokeswoman there said an official shutdown plan has been put in place, ensuring that workers “essential to protect life and property” remain on duty.

“Preparing fire responders for the nation’s 2019 fire suppression is part of the Forest Service shutdown plan,” Katie O’Connor, a Forest Service spokeswoman, said in a statement. “The agency is committed to supporting activities such as temporary and permanent fire hiring … and some essential trainings that are critical to 2019 fire suppression. These activities are prioritized because if the agency does not proceed we will jeopardize invested resources and risk not having permanent or temporary fire personnel on board and qualified to complete work later in the year.”

The Forest Service does not have an “accurate number” of employees put on furlough, O’Connor said. But those who work closely with federal fire officials said that damage already is being done.

Controlled and so-called pile burns to rid the forests of flammable underbrush and debris have been put on hold since the government shut down. These fires either burn debris and small trees in prescribed areas or burn heaps of wood chips, pine cones and branches collected by forest workers during the summer.

One planned burn on private land in southwest Colorado that had been set for late December was called off because federal workers could not attend to assist, said Danny Margoles, coordinator for the Dolores Watershed Resilient Forest Collaborative, which brings together government, industry and conservation groups. The burn will be rescheduled, Margoles said.

U.S. Forest Service members watch a firefighting helicopter fly over remote terrain during the 2017 Whittier Fire in Santa Barbara County.EPA file

A proposal to thin trees and burn brush in California’s Stanislaus National Forest also may not happen, because Tuolumne County and Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions, a group of forest stakeholders, couldn’t get needed information from the Forest Service to complete a grant application, said John Buckley, executive director of an environmental group in the state who is part of the leadership team with Yosemite.

The Forest Service’s 10-page shutdown contingency plan allows completion of prescribed burns already underway but says there should be no new prescribed burns until the government reopens.

More fire mitigation work needs to be done in national forests, not less, said Buckley, adding: “And now, in 2019, less work is likely to be done unless this is resolved quickly.”

Nick Goulette, executive director of the Watershed Center, a forestry nonprofit in California, said that there is a backlog of tens of thousands of piles of forest debris that need to be burned in the state. But there were too few workers to get the job done, even before the shutdown, he said.

“The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and National Forest Service essentially don’t have their personnel on the ground,” Goulette said. “And so they are not doing the mitigation work they typically do this time of year.”

With federal employees off the job, training programs like a wildland fire workshop set for Missoula, Montana, in late January have been canceled, said Bill Gabbert, a longtime firefighter who now runs a blog about wildfires.

The winter is normally a time for numerous other training sessions, from basic safety courses, which every firefighter must repeat annually, to sophisticated tactical simulations. Federal employees either manage or participate in many of those sessions, which now have been cast into doubt, several fire professionals said.

The Forest Service memo allows “critical fire training academies currently in session to prepare fire responders for the nation’s 2019 fire suppression and emergency response needs.” It does not make clear if trainings not already begun can remain on the calendar.

Although the Forest Service statement said critical hiring would go on unabated, one federal employee and an online posting suggested that a hiring event this week in South Dakota was put off because of the shutdown. The Forest Service’s Region 2 “fire hire,” covering Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and most of Wyoming, was delayed, according to information posted on Facebook by the U.S. Hotshots Association, a group that represents seasonal firefighters.

New firefighters must pass a drug test and a physical, in addition to training, before they can be hired. Any slowdown in the hiring process “is a little scary because it could limit who is available,” said one Forest Service employee, who declined to be named because she was not authorized to speak on the issue.

“If you don’t do the hiring on time, then you can’t do the training on time, then you are not ready for the next fire season,” said Goulette of the Watershed Center, which is based in the Northern California town of Hayfork. “And with fire season expanding in California and across the West, you better be ready. Spring does not last as long as it used to.”

Fire experts and climate scientists say warmer and drier weather has prolonged recent fire seasons, making winter recovery time even more precious for firefighters to regroup. “There can be a little over 300 days a year now that someone is fighting a fire somewhere,” said Whittington, “compared to 200 or 250 days in the past. So the time to get over the last fire year and prepare for the next one is incredibly short.”

The new attention comes at a time when wildfires have pushed to the forefront of the public’s consciousness after 2017 wildfires blackened a huge swath of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and burned into several wine country communities. That was only a prelude to 2018’s Woolsey and Camp Fires, the latter burning about 14,000 homes and killing 86 people.

Even before this fall’s fires, the California Legislature was putting together a bill that calls for $1 billion for fire management over the next five years. The state also established in a Fire Management Task Force. But some of the federal employees who participate in that joint planning have been missing since late December because of the shutdown.

Firefighters already survived a 2018 fire season of 14-hour days, two weeks at a time, often sleeping on the ground. The stress of the work is considerable, and anxiety has now increased as some paychecks have been put on hold and many employees have been forced to borrow to make ends meet, said another Forest Service employee, who asked to be anonymous because she was not authorized to speak.

“The biggest thing about the shutdown is the extra stress it’s bringing and the impact it’s having on how people feel about the job,” Whittington said. “Morale is not very good, and it’s tough to bring that back. …This should be down time, so this is not a good deal at all.”



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Gun rights groups try last-ditch move to stop Trump ban on rapid-fire bump stocks

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By Pete Williams

WASHINGTON — Owners of bump stocks — attachments that allow rifles to be fired rapidly — are hoping a federal appeals court will relieve them of the legal duty to destroy the devices by Monday.

The Trump administration ordered a ban on bump stocks after they figured prominently in the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting that killed 58 people and wounded 500 others. A police investigation revealed that Stephen Paddock, who carried out the massacre, had 22 semi-automatic rifles with him in his hotel room overlooking an outdoor concert that he attacked, and 14 of the weapons were equipped with bump stocks.

Under a federal rule that took effect in December, owners must destroy their bump stocks, which are usually made of plastic, by Monday or risk prosecution for a felony. The rule suggests smashing them with a hammer, cutting them apart with a saw, or turning them over to a local ATF office. It applies to individual owners, dealers, wholesalers and manufacturers.

Federal authorities estimate that half a million of them have been sold in the U.S.

The devices are attached to a rifle in place of the normal stock, the end piece that sit next to a user’s shoulder. Once in place, the bump stock absorbs the weapon’s recoil and alters the relationship between the trigger finger and the weapon.

Without a bump stock, the rifle remains stationary, and the trigger finger must be moved to fire each round. With a bump stock, after the trigger is pulled once, the recoil begins moving the trigger against the finger, which remains stationary, resulting in rapid firing like a fully automatic rifle.

For that reason, the Trump administration concluded that bump stocks violate a federal law that bans machineguns, defined as weapons that automatically fire more than one shot “with a single function of the trigger.”

Gun rights groups sued, arguing that bump stocks are intended to be used with AR-15 style rifles which are mechanically incapable of firing more than once with a single function of the trigger, because it must be released and moved again to allow the weapon to fire. They say the words of the statute — single function of the trigger — refer to the movement of the trigger itself, not whether the trigger is pulled by a finger or actuated by a bump stock.

“The government is just wrong to focus to focus on the behavior of the person rather than the function of the trigger,” said Erik Jaffee, representing the gun owners. “Function of the trigger means the trigger, not the shooter.”

The Justice Department told the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., on Friday that the courts have interpreted the phrase “single function of the trigger” to mean “single pull of the trigger.” A bump stock, government lawyers argued, allows a rifle to fire automatically once the trigger is pulled once, and that qualifies it as a machinegun.

An ATF spokeswoman said some owners have already turned in their bump stocks. But gun owner groups said others were waiting to see whether the appeals court agrees to put the rule on hold.

The court did not indicate when it might rule.



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‘I will TELEPATHICALLY stop you!’ Uri Geller sends Theresa May BIZARRE Brexit warning

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PARANORMAL spoon bender Uri Geller has written a bizarre open letter to Theresa May, telling the Prime Minister he “loves” her but “will stop you telepathically” from carrying out Brexit.

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Rep. Steve King slammed as ‘white supremacist’ for remarks about Katrina victims

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/ Source: Associated Press

By Dartunorro Clark

WASHINGTON — GOP Rep. Steve King is under fire after he told constituents at a town hall that victims of Hurricane Katrina pleaded for help from the government in contrast to residents of his home state of Iowa who “take care of each other.”

“Here’s what FEMA tells me: We go to a place like New Orleans and everybody’s looking around saying, ‘Who’s gonna help me, who’s gonna help me?’ When FEMA responds to problems in Iowa, they’re just always gratified when they come and see how Iowans take care of each other,” the Iowa lawmaker told a town hall meeting in Charter Oak, Iowa, on Thursday.

King said he visited New Orleans, which is a majority black city, multiple times after the deadly 2005 storm. More than 1,800 people, mostly black, died from the disaster; however, government officials have noted that the true death toll could be much higher.

Recent spring flooding in the Midwest has devastated towns and rural communities across the region and has been blamed for three deaths.

Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, D-La., whose district includes New Orleans, said in a tweet on Thursday that the remarks are more evidence that King is a “white supremacist.”

“My heart goes out to all Iowans. Though it unsettles me that @SteveKingIA would dare compare them to the countless victims of Katrina, many of whom lost their lives. When people show you who they are, believe them. Steve King is a white supremacist and I won’t stand for it,” Richmond said.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, also blasted King in a tweet on Thursday, calling his comments “disgusting and disheartening.”

“These comments are disgusting and disheartening. When communities are affected by disasters, we come together to help each other, not tear each other down,” he said.

King was one of 11 members of Congress to vote against a bill to help victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 because he said the $51.8 billion aid package was too expensive. He called it a “good” and “principled” vote, according to HuffPost.

King’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

King has been under fire from his party for remarks about race. In January, GOP voted unanimously to remove King from all committees amid the uproar over his comments about white nationalism. The move came after he questioned why “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization” was offensive in an interview with The New York Times.

“How did that language become offensive?” he asked. “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters at the time that King’s language is “reckless, wrong, and has no place in our society.”

King later backtracked in a statement at the time, saying, “I reject white nationalism. I reject white supremacy. It’s not part of any of my ideology. I reject anyone who carries that ideology.”`

Associated Press contributed.



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