Wildland firefighters on the BLM Devil's Canyon Veterans Crew hike in a line before digging fireline on a wildfire near Helena, Montana. Photo by Matt Irving, BLM contract photographer.
BY JEFF RUPERT
So far, 2023 has reinforced the fact that every fire year is unique. This year, we’ve seen a delayed start to above-normal fire activity in the U.S. We even saw a record low for year-to-date acres burned in June, while record-setting levels of fire activity occurred in Canada the same month.
While we are grateful for less extreme U.S. wildfire activity so far this year, conditions appear to be changing quickly. The national Preparedness Level has moved to 3, indicating a late-summer rise in wildfire activity throughout several geographic areas. The most recent National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook estimates that portions of the Northwest, Southwest, Alaska, Great Lakes, and all of Hawaii will have above normal fire potential throughout August. Many of these areas could continue to see above normal activity into September – some could even extend into October.
As we prepare for a potentially busy late summer and fall, we are also continuing to support Canada. Since May, the U.S. has mobilized more than 2,269 Interior and USDA Forest Service wildland fire personnel to assist. It appears that Canada will continue to request assistance, so this support effort will be balanced with our U.S wildfire suppression needs to ensure we are doing everything we can to support our northern neighbor while tackling wildfire suppression at home.
We’ve also seen significant interest in wildland fire management and our workforce modernization effort from Congress, the White House, and Interior and USDA leadership. It’s encouraging to see our leaders and elected officials engage in wildland fire management issues, particularly as Interior and our partners continue to modernize wildland fire management to tackle a changing and increasingly complex fire environment and reduce wildfire risk throughout the Nation.
Wildland firefighter pay continues to be the cornerstone of our workforce reform effort, which also includes providing a better work-life balance; adding workforce capacity; enhancing mental health and wellbeing programs; and addressing other critical wildland fire personnel support. Last year, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided temporary pay supplements to more than 5,200 Interior Department and 14,000 USDA Forest Service firefighters, providing an extra $20,000 per year, or 50 percent of the firefighter’s base pay, whichever was less that year.
While these payments are helping achieve a more reasonable wage for the arduous work our firefighters perform and improve morale, we estimate that the available funding for the supplemental payments will run out around September 30 of this year. Without a permanent solution, firefighters face a pay cliff where their compensation would drop by $20,000 per year for most. To develop a permanent pay solution, Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire worked with Interior bureaus, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service, and the Office of Personnel Management to develop a package of legislative proposals included in the President’s Fiscal Year 2024 Budget. We continue working closely with the administration and Congress on this proposal and other legislation that addresses wildland firefighter pay, such as the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act (S.2272) which was introduced in mid-July in the Senate.
We are also anticipating a final report from the Biden-Harris administration’s Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission. The commission, created in 2021 by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to represent federal agencies, state, local, and Tribal governments and the private sector, is forming federal policy recommendations to better prevent, manage, suppress, and recover from wildfires. The commission’s report with these recommendations is due to Congress at the end of September. We look forward to this report, with the goal of further refining our wildland fire management program to work towards a more sustainable and resilient future.
As we head into the potential height of the 2023 fire year, we remain incredibly grateful for our wildland fire personnel throughout the country. These dedicated professionals spend time away from their families working long hours in strenuous environments. Our main goal continues to be providing the support and resources they need to sustain their health and wellbeing, maintain work-life balance, have fulfilling careers, and safely and efficiently fulfill Interior’s wildland fire management mission as our Nation learns to coexist with more extreme wildfires.
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.