Members of a Yosemite helitack crew work around a helicopter in a grassy field. Trees border the field, with smoke rising from their midst. Mountains rise in the distance under a stormy sky. Photo by Yosemite National Park.
BY JEFF RUPERT
One year ago this November, President Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, providing a once-in-a-generation investment that is helping to tackle the climate crisis and improve the resiliency of our nation’s lands to wildfires. It provides nearly $1.5 billion over five years for the U.S. Department of the Interior to reduce the risk and mitigate the impact of wildfires. In the first year of its implementation, Interior allocated nearly $180 million for a range of critical activities.
Our dedicated wildland firefighters make this work possible, and it is our responsibility to support them. This year, we improved federal wildland firefighter pay and developed a job classification series that recognizes the unique responsibilities of these professionals. The Interior and Agriculture departments also began work to better support the unique mental health needs of our wildland firefighters by establishing a health and wellbeing program directed by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Early this year, we developed a five-year plan to address wildfire risk and provide a roadmap for expanded investments in wildfire mitigation and burned area rehabilitation. Under this plan, Interior invested $79 million nationwide from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2022 to advance wildfire resilience on nearly 188,000 acres. The Department also expanded coordination between scientists and wildland fire managers to improve planning and accelerate this work in future years.
We increased support for wildfire science to assist with sound decision-making and address the pressing need to better understand how to reduce the risk to communities.
The Wildfire Mitigation and Management Commission, which was established by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, began meeting this year. Interior is supporting its work, and we look forward to its recommendations to help guide the transition to more innovative and responsive wildfire management.
We also laid the groundwork in 2022 to expand wildland firefighter training, develop a geospatial wildfire risk mitigation planning tool with our partners, and increase local firefighting capacity.
Although we saw a more gradual progression of wildfire activity this year than in 2021, it continued to surpass the ten-year average with nearly 60,000 wildfires burning more than 7.2 million acres to date. Some areas experienced catastrophic wildfires, including the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon wildfires in New Mexico.
This new norm of increased wildfire activity continues to emphasize the critical need for expanded mitigation efforts, comprehensive response, and innovative new approaches. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law helped us lay the foundation this year for significant additional investments in wildfire management in 2023 and beyond.
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.