By Dillon Thomas

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (CBS4) – An expert in preventing forest fires says the government shutdown could put Colorado’s 24 million acres of forests at risk. Because the U.S. Forest Service is impacted by the federal government shutdown, many employees tasked with preventing wildfires are not at work during critical mitigation months.

(credit: CBS)

State Forester Mike Lester told CBS4’s Dillon Thomas the Forest Service is in charge of maintaining 65 percent of the forest in Colorado. During the winter, employees usually spend time pile burning, meaning they are clearing debris that commonly fuels large wildfires during the summer.

Mike Lester (credit: CBS)

“Every day we miss (due to the shutdown), where we have snow on the ground and good atmospheric conditions, is another day we cannot reclaim,” Lester said. “We don’t have enough staff resources to get the job done that we need to get done.”

(credit: CBS)

Forest managers rely on soft soil and the snow on the ground in the High Country to safely complete their mitigation processes. By completing the process in the winter, they clear the ground in time to prevent quick spreading wildfires in the summer.

(credit: CBS)

However, without Forest Service staff working each day, Lester said the risk of significant fires in the summer increases, “Whenever we take any of those players out of the mix, we have an even greater capacity issue.”

(credit: U.S. Forest Service)

State, and local, forest managers continue their work throughout the shutdown. However, with most of Colorado’s land maintained by the federal government, Lester hoped the other agencies could do their part to prevent fires.

A Forest Service engine watches over the Dry Fork trail in the San Juan National Forest to make sure no one uses it as it is one of many trails closed as a result of the 416 fire on June 12, 2018 in Durango, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Lester said the state of Colorado has a significant amount of assets at risk with fires, and the shutdown’s impact on the Forest Service was not helping the cause.

The Snake Fire (credit: US Forest Service)

“Clean air, clean water, wildlife habitats, recreation,” Lester said. “Those are all things we get with our forest, and we cannot take that for granted.”

Wildfire Resources

– Visit’s Colorado Wildfire section.

Wildfire Photo Galleries

– See images from the most destructive wildfires (Black Forest, Waldo Canyon, High Park and Fourmile), the deadliest (Storm King) and largest wildfire (Hayman) in Colorado history.

Dillon Thomas