Bureau of Land Management Great Basin smokejumpers hold a U.S. flag as they stand in front of their base wearing jump suits before mobilizing to Canada for a wildfire assignment.
BY JEFF RUPERT
As we approach the typical height of the fire year, we continue to assess current conditions to prepare for fire activity. Thankfully, the U.S. has not experienced a high volume of extreme above-normal fire activity yet this year, but as we all know, nature can quickly change the situation with persistent hot, dry weather, dry lightning, or any combination of weather factors that aren’t easy to predict. As always, we are incredibly grateful for the nimble nature of our wildland firefighters and their preparedness for just about any situation.
This is also the time of year when the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretaries renew their commitment to our nation’s wildland fire managers as they prepare to manage wildland fire incidents throughout the country. Our country’s interagency cooperation and coordination continue to set an outstanding incident management example for the rest of the world, and every year, it’s refreshing to see our leadership support this unwavering commitment. This year’s joint Direction to Wildland Fire Leadership provides very useful guidelines and other reminders as the summer months potentially bring fire activity to the U.S.
We have started the typical western fire year by supporting Canada as they experience very high to extreme wildfire activity. Since May 8, the U.S. has mobilized a total of 1,297 personnel to Canada via the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) and the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), and there are currently more than 615 personnel assigned to Canada wildfires, which changes daily as the situation evolves. It’s incredibly beneficial for our two countries to have the ability to assist each other during times of need; Canada has assisted the U.S. with hand crews, engines, and incident management personnel four times throughout the last six fire years.
Working in wildland fire management continues to be ever-evolving as we focus on workforce reform to provide a better work-life balance; add workforce capacity; improve pay; enhance mental health and wellbeing programs; and provide other critical wildland fire personnel support. Part of this critical effort involves developing a specific Wildland Fire Management, GS-0456 occupational series to further streamline career trajectory and professionalize wildland fire management careers, which is currently in the implementation phase.
To carry out this essential workforce reform effort, 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 are currently working with Congress to address this important initiative to further support wildland firefighters who are the backbone of wildland fire management.
Interior and the USDA Forest Service also recently held a mental health and wellbeing planning summit to develop a Joint Wildland Firefighter Behavioral Health Program in Boise, Idaho, on April 11-13. The summit convened a wide range of wildland fire personnel, mental health experts, and agencies that have implemented successful behavioral health programs. The summit provided a forum to identify specific needs, evidence-based solutions, and a framework for the program's implementation. Results from the summit will create a program to provide expanded services that address the unique experiences and mental health challenges of our wildland firefighters in our changing environment.
Wildland fire management continues to be exciting and progressive as Interior and its partners work to evolve with our changing fire environment. As we stand ready for the upcoming fire year, we look forward to implementing the changes we need to continue fostering a well-supported wildland fire management workforce, which will give us the foundation to tackle wildland fire management challenges – now and into the future.
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.