A federal government shutdown looms, here’s how it affects some RFV services

Federally-funded programs aimed at combating hunger are in the most danger, while public land firefighters likely will be available in emergencies

Crews from the White River National Forest, Bureau of Land Management, and Aspen Fire executed a prescribed burn at Collins Creek in April 2023.
USFS/Courtesy photo

Gridlock in Washington has all but guaranteed a federal government shutdown starting on midnight Saturday. 

The Roaring Fork Valley benefits from federal dollars and departments, and some of their most urgent uses — fighting wildfire and helping families secure food and childcare — could be affected by the shutdown. 

Here’s what we know so far.

Will federally-backed social programs like SNAP stay available?

In short, foot insecurity-related programs are in the most danger. As long as the shutdown is less than a month, serious interruption to benefits in other programs is unlikely.

Pitkin County Human Services Interim Director Sam Landercasper said programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) are in the most danger of interruption.

“Starting this coming week of October, people who are expecting to get their monthly allocation for SNAP and WIC might not get that,” he said. “Folks who are low income — and especially in our region, where the cost of living is so high — folks who are receiving SNAP and Medicaid are very low income. So that’s a huge impact on their ability to provide food for their families.”

Pitkin County has about 260 people on SNAP, according to Landercasper. That number would be higher, he said, but with such a high local cost of living, many individuals don’t qualify for the program because their income is too high for federal standards. 

He also noted that he believes WIC has a small contingency fund that could carry it through part of a shutdown, though he was not sure how long. 

For folks on Medicaid, he said interruption will likely present in reimbursement to healthcare providers and not in care for patients. 

For families who receive assistance to pay their childcare bills, the state of Colorado will continue to support the program, he said, through the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program For Families.

And while most of this is uncertain, Landercasper noted that schools that received federal assistance for student lunches and Colorado Works, the state version of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), could be impacted. 

For families in need of food or support during the shutdown, he pointed to partners like LIFT-UP, Harvest for Hunger, and Food Bank of the Rockies. The county Human Services department also has limited City Market gift cards available and commodity bags meant to feed families for a few days until they can go to a food pantry. 

Its office is open Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.

“A month (-long shutdown) is kind of that cusp,” Landercasper said. “If we started to look at things going on longer than a month and you’re starting to see people not getting multiple sets of benefits, you’re starting to see areas where some of these reserve funds are running out and then those programs discontinue.”

What happens if a wildfire ignites on public land?

In short, someone — either a federal wildland firefighter team and/or a local fire department — will address any fire incident on public land during a shutdown. 

The White River National Forest covers 2.3 million acres from Rifle to Summit County and Independence Pass to the Flat Tops north of Glenwood Springs. Within that acreage, the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District covers more than 700,000 acres. The Bureau of Land Management also holds significant acreage in the Roaring Fork Valley. 

Both departments retain their own firefighting teams, which respond to emergency calls and engage in prevention work like prescribed burns. And the firefighting community is a cooperative one, many interagency agreements and organizations exist to ensure resources are pooled to increase chances of success against wildfires. 

According to Aspen Fire Protection District Chief Rick Balentine, federal firefighters are essential workers. They and their resources — like aerial firefighting aircraft — will be made available in the event of a wildfire.

“Federal firefighters are considered essential workers. So they continue working, even without pay, and they get caught up,” he said. “It happened once before. So really nothing changes in terms of response or readiness; it’s still the same.”

He does not recall if it was the 2018-2019 shutdown or sometime earlier that he worked with federal firefighters during a shutdown. But he said that non-emergency work like prescribed burns will not occur during a shutdown. 

Acting Public Affairs Officer for the White River National Forest Olivia Blake said that all requests for comment are being routed through the Washington office for the U.S. Forest Service. That office did not respond to a request for comment by Friday evening. 

Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District Chief Rob Goodwin said that even if federal firefighters are furloughed or otherwise unavailable, his department will respond to incidents on public land as they always do.

“If (a fire on public land) happened, we would do our normal process. At the beginning, we would make sure we made the calls to the Grand Junction dispatch center and ours. And if there’s anybody that may be on call, at least they’re notified,” he said. “And then we will respond to it. And then we would order whatever appropriate mutual aid from our local and regional resources we thought needed to respond to mitigate that problem.”

He noted that fire departments from Summit County to Garfield County started a program called Mountain Area Mutual Aid, which provides a resource-sharing apparatus. 

State-funded resources, like a Chinook helicopter based in Montrose, are also available for regional wildfire use. Glenwood Springs Fire Department used the Chinook in a recent wildfire event.