Reclamation’s National Wildland Fire Management Program Coordinator Laura Harger (right) with the Regional Wildland Fire Management Program Coordinators John Hutchings and Kendra Fallon. They visited Whiskeytown Reservoir, a Reclamation reservoir within Whiskeytown National Recreation Area near Redding, California, which was impacted by the 2018 Carr Fire. Photo courtesy of Laura Harger.
BY LAURA HARGER and ERIN MCDUFF
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation brings water to more than 31 million people and 10 million acres of farmland across the 17 Western states, and it is the second largest producer of hydroelectric power in the U.S. As wildfires increase in size and intensity, the water bodies, land, and infrastructure managed by Reclamation are increasingly at risk. In late 2021, Reclamation established a National Wildland Fire Management Program Coordinator position. The position will develop the program so Reclamation can continue to meet its mission while managing the threats posed by wildfires.
Why is wildland fire management a concern for Reclamation?
Reclamation has jurisdiction over 6 million acres of burnable land, as well as another 1.7 million acres of land in easements. Reclamation is unique in that it is the only agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior that owns land but is not directly involved in wildland firefighting.
Much of the land managed by Reclamation was not historically threatened by wildfires, but that is changing. In 2018, the catastrophic Carr Fire burned about 229,000 acres of Reclamation land, destroyed over 1,000 homes and facilities, burned powerlines, and caused millions of dollars in hydropower generation losses. It was a sobering reminder of how devastating wildfires can be to Reclamation.
After that incident, Reclamation began developing a Wildland Fire Management Program. Even though the agency does not have a firefighting workforce, it must still manage its lands and facilities to reduce the occurrence and severity of wildfire and to protect life and property.
What is the role of your position?
As the National Program Coordinator, I am responsible for Reclamation’s policy on wildland fire management. I provide support to our five regions. I also help coordinate at a national level with agencies that manage firefighting operations.
What has the program accomplished in its first year?
In 2022, the program invested over $2 million agency-wide to reduce hazardous fuels and enacted two fire support agreements with partners to protect Reclamation land in Colorado and Wyoming. Reclamation also signed its first interagency agreement with Interior's Office of Wildland Fire. The agreement will support Reclamation in qualifying its employees to work on wildfire incidents. A pilot is expected to be implemented in 2023.
What are your plans for the future of the program?
We want the program to grow, so building capacity is important, as is engaging in incident support and interagency coordination, improving our data management, and addressing financial needs.
What has been your favorite part of the job?
The people who work in wildland firefighting with Interior’s other land management agencies have been open and welcoming. I’ve come across people I worked with in fire decades ago. It feels like a family I’ve returned to. I’ve been impressed with the information, support, and encouragement they’ve provided.
But my favorite experience so far has been the opportunity to engage with Reclamation’s regions and area offices. I enjoy the challenge of finding ways to make the program work for these vastly different areas, and I enjoy networking with the people who support the regions.
What advice would you offer someone just starting their career?
I worked my way up from the bottom, starting as an intern. The advice I would offer someone just starting out is to never pass up on an opportunity. Some people, I believe especially women, are prone to thinking that they aren’t good enough or don’t know enough to put their name forward. Don’t listen to that self-doubt. If you take a chance, you just might be chosen, and you may discover you’re good at it.
Laura Harger is the National Wildland Fire Management Program Coordinator for Reclamation. She grew up in Michigan, spending summers exploring its many forests and rivers. She earned degrees in biology and environmental studies while running track and cross country for Central Michigan University, then headed west. She started her federal career at the National Park Service and spent almost a decade managing and protecting a wide variety of natural resources at Rocky Mountain National Park. In 2009, Laura completed her master’s degree at Colorado State University and took a position with Reclamation. Prior to starting her current role, she was the Environmental and Lands Resources Branch Supervisor at Reclamation’s Eastern Colorado Area Office in Loveland, Colorado.
Erin McDuff is a public affairs specialist with Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire.