Smokejumpers prepare to board plane at the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho. Photo by Neal Herbert, Interior Department.
BY JEFF RUPERT
As wildfire activity increases this spring in parts of the country, such as New Mexico and Texas, our thoughts are with the communities impacted by these devastating blazes and the firefighters battling them.
These wildfires fit the pattern we have seen in recent years. The conditions propelling them are consistent with climate change, including more intense precipitation for shorter periods, longer and warmer growing seasons accompanied by drought, and earlier snowmelt in higher elevations. These factors have contributed to increasingly devastating, intense fire seasons in recent years.
The United States has over one billion acres at some level of risk from wildfire. Of the lands administer by the Interior Department, 7.1 million acres have a very-high or high likelihood of exposure to wildfires.
Managing wildfire risk is key to the protection and stewardship of these federal lands and honoring our trust responsibilities and special commitments to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and affiliated Island Communities.
Over the past decade, the Interior Department has invested more than $2 billion to implement fuel treatments that reduce the risk to communities and ecosystems from wildfires before they start and to conduct post-fire rehabilitation to set landscapes back on the path to recovery. For example, the effectiveness of fuel treatments implemented in Arizona between 2001 and 2021 was tested by the early season Flag Fire in the Hualapai Mountains in 2021. Post-fire monitoring revealed that where the fire intersected with past fuel treatments, its growth was significantly reduced. Examples like this around the country reinforce the important of these efforts.
The Interior Department recently released a five-year plan to address wildfire risk, completing a milestone under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. It provides a blueprint for significantly expanding our fuel management activities. The plan complements USDA’s 10-year strategy and supports a multijurisdictional approach to reducing wildfire risk across broad landscapes.
And we are not doing this work alone. Our partnerships have never been stronger, and they are amplifying our efforts across interconnected lands. As Tribal Nations, states, local municipalities, and even private landowners take steps to restore healthy fire regimes, it strengthens and extends our mitigation efforts on lands managed by the Interior Department and Tribes. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, for example, are reclaiming a traditional relationship with fire on the landscape, documented in an excellent short video. These local and regional efforts are critical and complement those at the federal level.
As our nation grapples with the climate crisis and works toward solutions, the Interior Department is receiving support to help it rise to these growing challenges. This year’s funding appropriation included an increase for our Wildland Fire Management Program, and the President’s 2023 budget request includes a further increase. Together with the once-in-a-generation funding provided through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Department will dramatically expand its work to reduce wildfire risk, improve community resiliency to wildfire, prepare for and respond to wildfires, and support post-fire recovery, including in communities that have traditionally been overlooked.
As the Director of the Office of Wildland Fire, Jeff Rupert oversees the Department of the Interior’s Wildland Fire Management Program, which spans four bureaus and administers over 535 million acres of public and Tribal lands. In this role, he sets policy and ensures the program’s $1.5 billion budget is strategically invested to reduce wildfire risk, rehabilitate burned landscapes, promote a better understanding of wildfire, and support firefighters. During more than 30 years with the Department of the Interior, Rupert also served as the Chief of Natural Resources and Conservation Planning and as a refuge manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildfire Service.