Department of Interior releases 5-year plan to prepare for wildfire

Approximately 7.1 million acres of land administered by the Interior Department have been identified as having a very high or high likelihood of exposure to wildfires

Horse Pasture Fire
Fire activity on the Horse Pasture Fire April 8, 2021 as islands of unburned fuel within the perimeter continue to burn. Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. NPS photo.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) has released a five-year plan to address wildfire risk on DOI protected land. It will help to prepare communities and ecosystems against the threat of wildfire by making investments in forest restoration, hazardous fuels management, and post-wildfire restoration. Much of it will be funded by Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) which provides $1.5 billion for the DOI’s Wildland Fire Management Program

Today, the Department released a roadmap for achieving these objectives in coordination with federal, non-federal, and Tribal partners. The roadmap follows the release in January of the U.S. Forest Service 10-Year Wildfire Crisis Strategy. Taken together, these plans outline the monitoring, maintenance, and treatment strategy the agencies will use to address wildfire risk, better serve communities, and improve conditions on all types of lands where wildfires can occur.

“Wildland fire management simply isn’t possible without the interagency, all-hands approach made possible by multilevel partnerships across the country,” said Office of Wildland Fire Director Jeff Rupert.

The overall strategy identified by the Interior and Agriculture Departments builds on the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy’s vision of safely and effectively extinguishing fire, when needed; using fire where allowable; managing natural resources; and, as a nation, living with wildland fire.

Today Director Rupert and personnel from the Forest Service testified before the House Natural Resources Committee on their planned work to address wildland fire.

In the hearing today, Rep. Yvette Herrell of New Mexico referred to the Forest Service’s 10-year strategy released in January.  “I am concerned that the recently announced 10-year strategy to combat the wildfire crisis will fall short because not only are the tools not in place to implement this strategy, but the Forest Service is also only relying on only 5 years of funding to execute a 10-year plan. This is especially concerning considering yesterday’s release of the Department of the Interior’s wildfire strategy which is only 5 years.”

Rep. Herrell asked why the 10-year strategy included no references to how it will be implemented. Jaelith Hall-Rivera, USFS Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry, said that it was a timing issue, in that the strategy was being prepared while the legislation was being considered.

Later in the hearing, Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona asked in regards to the additional funding and new initiatives outlined in the Infrastructure legislation, “Does the Forest Service have adequate staff capacity to fill the new dollars they will be responsible with implementing, and how does the Forest Service intend to address staffing capacities with new hiring?”

After Ms. Hall-Rivera and Brian Ferebee, Chief Executive of Intergovernmental Relations for the Forest Service glanced at each other, Mr. Ferebee turned on his microphone and basically said they were looking at the issue.

The DOI’s 5-year plan has a page and a half, Section III Planning, devoted to changes that will help to enable the execution of the additional workload. Those include:

  • Creating a team to deal with NEPA and other statutory review compliance;
  • Exploring opportunities to leverage partnerships and to utilize existing authorities to facilitate hazardous fuel treatments, such as Good Neighbor Authority.
  • Increase contracting and administration capacity so that programs have the support needed to carry out critical wildland fire management work. This will support efforts to hire additional wildland firefighters that are needed for wildfire response and to increase the pace and scale of hazardous fuel treatment efforts, along with the contracting that is needed for other critical fuel and restoration activities.
  • BIL investments will also allow DOI to expand staffing for professional positions that support science-based management decisions.
  • Continuing efforts started in 2021 to convert seasonal wildland firefighters to permanent full-time status will facilitate DOI efforts to respond to wildfires year-round and undertake hazardous fuel projects during periods of low wildfire activity.
  • The BIL provides funding to expand opportunities for training for staff, non-Federal wildland firefighters, and Native village fire crews to increase the pace and scale of fuel management treatments.

The USDA Forest Service’s 10-Year Wildfire Crisis Strategy focuses on treatment of up to 20 million acres of National Forest System lands, while Interior’s Five-Year Plan emphasizes fire-prone Interior and Tribal lands, including rangelands and other vegetative ecosystems that pose serious fire risks. Approximately 7.1 million acres of land administered by the Interior Department have been identified as having a very high or high likelihood of exposure to wildfires.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.