BY JEFF RUPERT
As a new fire year begins, our nation is preparing to respond to the increasingly severe wildfire activity we have observed in recent years. Significant new funding for wildland fire management demonstrates the importance the country has placed on addressing this crisis together. Continually improving technology, new scientific studies, and our extensive partnerships will help us adopt a holistic approach that uses our resources efficiently and to the greatest effect possible.
Nationwide in 2021, nearly 59,000 wildfires burned more than 7.1 million acres. Of that, over 3 million acres burned due to human-caused fires. This highlights the increasingly complex intersection of communities and wilderness. The Western U.S. was particularly impacted by more numerous fires, some of which grew to an enormous size. The Eastern U.S. also saw an increase in this more intense fire activity. Last year was particularly notable for the high demand on resources over an extended period of time. The country was at a heightened preparedness level for a record 99 consecutive days.
We are preparing to meet the challenges posed by this new norm. A historic investment in wildland fire management through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will significantly expand our wildfire mitigation, response, and recovery efforts. Annually over the next five years, it provides a 29 percent average increase over our 2021 funding. Earlier this week, we announced initial plans to invest this additional $1.5 billion.
I am encouraged by the strategic viewpoint a new Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission will bring to our efforts. The commission, established by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, will identify strategic policies to improve the efficiency of our wildfire response and the resilience of our landscapes and communities. The Interior and Agriculture departments, along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are currently collaborating to implement a selection process for commission members.
We know that improvements for our firefighters are overdue. The Interior Department will make significant strides this year in modernizing our workforce to better address the year-round demands of wildland fire management while supporting the professional, physical, and mental health needs of the employees who conduct this arduous, hazardous work.
I am heartened by the momentum building toward improving the wildland fire management program and the support we are receiving. In the coming months, we will share strategic plans to guide these expanded efforts and implement critical initiatives to support them, but this increased investment in wildland fire management will continue well beyond 2022
Jeff Rupert is the Director of the Office of Wildland Fire. During more than 20 years with the Department of the Interior, Rupert also served as the Chief of Natural Resources and Conservation Planning for the U.S. Fish and Wildfire Service, as the Refuge Manager of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma, and as the Refuge Manager for the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.