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The middle of a snowstorm seemed an odd time to inspect a fire truck.

But that's when wildland firefighters don’t have to worry about putting their gear in harm’s way. So that’s when Richard Grady drove out to the Wye west of Missoula to put Paul Hendren’s new support water tender through its paces. Grady has the contract to certify private operators for the U.S. Forest Service Region 1. However, he has no idea when his federal partners will see his results.

The federal government shutdown hit 35 days on Friday when its end was announced. That time was typically when hundreds of private businesses throughout the fire-prone West learned what their federal partners expect of them for the coming season. This year, Grady said they're relying on one another to get ready.

“The shutdown is affecting everyone involved,” Grady said. “Some people have their agreements with the Forest Service already in place. But the (contract) renewals come out in the next couple months. All the people who want to get in the business are on hold. And they’re investing a lot of money.”

On Wednesday, Grady poked into every cranny of Hendren’s twin-axle Peterbilt truck, checking for safety features. Hendren, of Arlee, plans to get into the wildfire support business this summer.

“I was on a firefighting ground crew years ago,” Hendren said. “I’ve spent the past few years in North Dakota hauling fuel and propane. I’ve been wanting to do fire again for a few years.”

Before he can, Grady warned Hendren he needs to upgrade his wheel chocks to solid-core, not hollow models. He needs an updated service sticker on the fire extinguisher inside his cab. Grady would spend about two hours weighing, measuring and activating every feature of the truck. He has dozens of other private contract rigs to certify in Montana and Idaho.

For example, Grady said he has appointments to inspect eight new water tenders, two skidgines and two fire engines worth a combined $500,000 for owners who still don’t know if they will have firefighting contracts for 2019. Traditionally, all those loose ends have been tied off by May 1. With the federal shutdown eliminating the month of January from the off-season work schedule, all that paperwork has backed up. 

Nevertheless, those private firefighting contractors will meet in Missoula next month to prepare for the coming work season. The two-day free workshop is run through the Northern Rockies Wildfire Contractors Association. It will cover lessons learned from the past two fire seasons and how private businesses can prepare to work with federal agencies this year.

“Our contractors have no voice,” Grady said. Although they provide nearly 90 percent of the “big iron” — the bulldozers, excavators, skidgines and related heavy machinery — to the fire line, private contractors don’t have representation at the Northern Rockies Coordination Group or other interagency firefighting forums. But they depend on federal contracts, must follow government operating rules and are assigned to work according to public agency priorities.

Those terms can change quickly or vary between agencies. Grady said last year, water tankers learned they needed special valves and inspections to prevent aquatic invasive species like zebra mussels from sneaking a ride in their water supply. When the Sprague fire got rolling in Glacier National Park last fall, some contractors discovered their Forest Service equipment inspections didn’t meet the same requirements as a National Park Service inspection.

The contracts can run dozens of pages, often resulting in piles of rules an inch thick. Part of the workshop covers the legal tools contractors have to appeal problems with their federal partners.

“The contractors fill a very large piece of the puzzle,” said Griz One Firefighting owner Kirk Hennefer, a Missoula-based firefighting operation. “Will they extend the deadlines? That’s all unknown.”

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