BY ERIN MCDUFF
Across America’s vast forests and grasslands, wildfires can move swiftly, oblivious to the lines on a map that mark one parcel of land as private property, one as a sovereign Tribal nation, another as federally managed, and still another as state jurisdiction. This is what makes close collaboration across the breadth of organizations involved in wildland fire management essential.
Roughly 640 million acres, or about 28 percent of land in the United States, is managed by the federal government. Responsibility for wildland fire management is shared between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildland Service, and National Park Service. All five agencies cooperate closely, staffing interagency crews, sharing equipment, and jointly compiling information on the wildfires they encounter.
An additional 56.2 million acres nationwide are administered as federal Indian reservations, and about 90 Tribes manage their own wildland fire programs. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, as part of the government’s treaty obligations, provides either funding or direct management services for those programs. Federally-managed lands often border Tribal lands, requiring close coordination on wildfires that cross boundaries.
The Intertribal Timber Council plays a vital role in supporting the common goals of most Indian Tribes with significant forested landscapes, including their wildland fire management priorities. The council works closely with the five federal wildland fire management agencies. For example, an agreement established last year expands upon the coordination that has traditionally taken place between Tribes and the Interior Department to reduce wildland fire risk and mitigate post-wildfire impacts.
Across the country, state agencies provide wildfire management on roughly 1.5 billion acres, including state- and privately-owned land. On wildfires that cross boundaries or grow to an enormous size, those state agencies can be found working side-by-side with firefighters from the Interior and Agriculture departments.
State agencies also work together through the National Association of State Foresters, a nonprofit composed of the directors of forestry agencies that manage nearly two-thirds of all forests nationwide. The nonprofit provides leadership in forest management, including on wildland fire issues. It coordinates directly with the five federal wildland fire management agencies, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, and the Intertribal Timber Council by participating in the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. The group establishes common standards to ensure interoperability on fires and emergency incidents. This means setting consistent criteria for training, qualifications, procedures, and technology to support safe and effective wildland fire response.
The National Wildfire Coordinating Group is based at the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho, which serves as a focal point for organizing the mobilization of wildland fire resources throughout the U.S. and providing intelligence and predictive services to help the wildland fire community make informed decisions.
As the Interior Department prepares to implement the historic investment in wildland fire management provided through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, our partnerships with other federal agencies, Tribes, states, local municipalities, and nonprofits will be vital for our success. For example:
The largest component of the law’s wildland fire management funding is $878 million to improve ecosystem health and remove fuel for wildfires, collaborating across boundaries through established and new partnerships with states, Tribes, and local communities; shared stewardship contracts; and good neighbor agreements.
With additional funding provided through the law, the Interior and Agriculture departments will collaborate with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to operate a geospatial program to rapidly detect and report wildfire activity.
The Joint Fire Science Program will receive additional funding to support collaborative wildfire research by universities and federal agencies like NASA and the Environmental Protect Agency to inform policies at the national and local levels.
These are just a few examples of how robust partnerships that have been built over decades and an interagency approach to wildland fire management will play a vital role in successfully using this historic investment to manage wildfires cohesively across the country.
Erin McDuff is a public affairs specialist with the Office of Wildland Fire.