Director’s Report: A New Norm Demands We Adapt

The Summit Trail Fire.

The Summit Trail Fire burned through dense vegetation in Washington state. Photo by Colville Agency, BIA.


We experienced yet another record-setting wildfire season in 2021. Large wildfires burned for extended periods in every geographic area. As of November 1, nearly 48,500 wildfires nationwide have burned over 6.5 million acres. This year marked a new record for how long the nation was at a heightened preparedness level. The National Multi-Agency Coordination Group establishes preparedness levels based on fuel and weather conditions, fire activity, and fire suppression resource availability. The levels range from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). This year, we remained at Preparedness Levels 4 and 5 for a record 99 consecutive days.

Our firefighters are stretched to their limits by the need to respond to these more frequent, severe wildfires and to operate at maximum response levels for months rather than weeks. We grieve for the 15 wildland firefighters who lost their lives this year, and for the tragic deaths of 33 civilians.

At the Department of the Interior, we recognize that the new norm of longer, more extreme wildfire seasons demands that we adapt our approach to wildland fire management. We are prioritizing the need to modernize our firefighting workforce while creating good jobs and protecting the safety and long-term wellbeing of our wildland firefighters and incident responders. We are committed to supporting science and research into the effects of climate change on wildfires. We are also expanding our wildfire mitigation efforts to strengthen climate resiliency in high wildfire risk areas and focusing on restoration of lands damaged by wildfires.

At the same time, the Biden-Harris administration is working with Congress to better support our firefighters and to defend communities and ecosystems from the threat of wildfire. You can learn about the latest legislative proposals and read more about the Interior Department’s ongoing efforts in my recent testimony at a House subcommittee hearing on proposed wildland firefighting workforce reforms and at a Senate committee hearing on improving forest health and wildland fire management. 

Yesterday, President Biden also signed into law the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes a historic $3.3 billion investment in wildland fire management. To assist with implementation of the bill and increases in wildland firefighter compensation and benefits, the Office of Wildland Fire and our partners are undertaking a workforce assessment and developing compensation and benefit reform plans. These efforts will also support the administration’s focus on developing a robust firefighting workforce that is available year-round for wildland fire response and hazardous fuels management to better meet the challenges of today’s wildfire season.

As we head into the winter, we wish our entire wildland fire management community some well-deserved rest.

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.