The Suppression Program funds our wildfire response: firefighters in yellow shirts digging line, an airplane dropping retardant, emergency work to prevent erosion or landslides, as well as all the equipment and supplies needed to support these efforts.
Scenes of suppression: a single-engine tanker drops water on a wildfire in central Washington while engine crews work to contain the fire on the ground. (Nick Pieper/Bureau of Land Management)
$383.7 million: money spent by this program in Fiscal Year 2021
515: number of FTE* funded by this program in Fiscal Year 2021
* FTE (full-time equivalent) is the annual number of "work years" produced by employees. A "work year" is roughly 2,080 hours. Reporting personnel in this way enables a common view of the workforce across government agencies.
58,985: Number of wildfires in the United States in 2021
7.1 million: Number of acres burned in the United States in 2021
69: average number of acres per fire in 1989
121: average number of acres per fire in 2021
Datasource: National Interagency Coordination Center
Suppression operations include the things we do to extinguish a wildfire, prevent or modify the movement of unwanted fire, or manage a fire when it provides benefits like fuel reduction or improved wildlife habitat. Firefighters control a fire's spread (or put it out) by removing one of the three ingredients fire needs to burn: heat, oxygen, or fuel. They remove heat by applying water or fire retardant on the ground (using pumps or special wildland fire engines) or by air (using helicopters/airplanes). They remove fuel by cutting and digging to remove burnable vegetation with hand tools, by using heavy equipment like bulldozers to clear large areas of brush and trees, and by deliberately setting fires to rob an approaching wildfire of fuel (fighting fire with fire).
Wildfire growth is based on weather, topography, and fuel (i.e. is there a lot of fuel to burn? how dry is it?). Fire managers must react quickly to changing conditions and may use different strategies and tactics to control different areas of the same fire. No matter what strategies and tactics managers use, the primary objective of any suppression operation is to protect life, property, as well as any valued natural and cultural resources.
The Suppression Program pays for the people and equipment needed to control wildfires and is generally the largest line item in our annual wildland fire management budget. Suppression covers the cost of airplanes, helicopters, bulldozers, and firefighters, as well as incident command personnel (GIS specialists, payroll clerks, public affairs staff) and infrastructure (bathrooms, computers, food, generators, showers, tents) for incident command posts set up to manage large and long-duration fires.
The cost of our suppression operations has doubled over the last two decades, from $200 million in 1994 to over $400 million in 2018. A number of factors have driven this change:
Life requires us to accept a certain level of risk. Many daily activities expose us to the chance that we’ll lose something we value. We can take steps to make that loss less likely, but we can’t eliminate the risk altogether. We have to travel in a car to visit our relatives, so we wear seatbelts to make the consequences of an accident less severe. A biker wears a helmet to mitigate the risk of head injury. Life jackets keep us safer around water.
Managing wildland fire involves a similar evaluation of risk. History has taught us that extinguishing all wildfires can amplify risk by making catastrophic fire—fire we can’t control—more likely due to increased fuels. Nor can we let every wildfire burn, especially when they threaten communities.
Fire managers work to strike a balance between the cost of suppression, the safety of people and property, protection of natural/cultural resources, and the need for fire on many landscapes. Wildfires that pose no risk to people, property, or valued resources may be managed in a way that allows them to play their natural role in the ecosystem (returning nutrients to the soil, promoting germination of some plant species, restoring habitat diversity, etc.). A wildfire that poses limited risk to people or property may be suppressed in one spot and allowed to play its natural role in another. Managing wildfires can pay future dividends by reducing fuels and building resiliency to unwanted wildfires.
Sometimes a wildfire burns so hot it incinerates everything over a large area, including the plant roots and other organic matter that stabilize the topsoil. This type of disturbance leaves an area vulnerable to erosion, flooding, and mudslides that can delay plant recovery for decades (or longer), reduce water quality in nearby streams and watersheds, and possibly damage homes located in the wildland urban interface. By installing culverts, water bars, or silt fences to control the flow of water, emergency stabilization crews prevent erosion during and immediately following a wildfire. This work usually takes place within a year of a fire’s containment (though a site may be monitored for up to three years after a fire). The Burned Area Rehabilitation Program handles longer-term projects.
Staff in the Office of Wildland Fire oversee suppression spending throughout the Department of the Interior. In the field work is carried out by staff in the four Department bureaus with wildland fire management responsibilities (the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) working in tandem with our many partners.
Looking for current incident information or nationwide forecasts for wildland fire? Check out these resources: