Director's Report: Reflecting on the 2023 fire year and looking towards the future

Firefighters hike in a line down a hill. They are wearing protective fire gear and carry tools.

The Bureau of Land Management Bonneville Interagency Hotshot Crew hikes down the fireline on the Thompson Ridge Fire in Montana. Photo by Flathead National Forest, InciWeb.


As the 2023 fire year ends, it’s time to reflect on both the good and bad of this past year and establish priorities for 2024. Nationally, more than 50,000 wildfires burned over 2.5 million acres – much less than the ten-year acres burned average of 6.6 million acres. While the number of acres burned points to a below-average fire year, significant and devastating wildfire activity still occurred in several geographic areas of the country. 

The Lahaina fire in Maui, Hawaii, fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, killed nearly 100 people and destroyed more than 2,200 homes—all within a 24-hour period—making it the most lethal wildfire since the 2017 Camp Fire in California. Incidents like the Lahaina fire demonstrate that a low national acres burned total does not always equate to a less destructive fire year. Several devastating wildfires still occurred, resulting in significant regional and local impacts, civilian deaths, housing and infrastructure losses, and resource damage. The height of this activity culminated in mid-August, as the U.S. reached Preparedness Level 4 and stayed there until the first week of September.

Less widespread large fire activity allowed Interior and our USDA partner to support Canada through their most extreme wildfire year in recent history. Through our mutual wildfire assistance agreement, the United States deployed nearly 2,500 wildland firefighting personnel to assist our northern partner. A total of 45.7 million acres burned throughout Canada, which is more than seven times the 10-year average of acres burned in the United States. 

International agreements, like ours with Canada, are vital as the planet continues to grapple with increased wildfire activity. For example, this past April, the U.S. signed a first-ever international wildland fire agreement with Portugal. Following similar highly successful agreements between the United States and Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Mexico, this arrangement will help prevent and combat the devastating wildfires that affect our countries every year. We’re also watching Australia’s fire potential, as forecasts are predicting a potentially challenging year, so Interior is standing by in case Australia requests assistance. 

Interagency and inter-country partnerships are more important than ever before – a fact supported by the recent Wildland Fire Management Commission’s report to Congress. The commission, created by President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, was charged with making recommendations to Congress to improve federal policies related to the mitigation, suppression and management of wildland fires and post-wildfire rehabilitation. Comprised of representatives from federal agencies, state, local and Tribal governments, and representatives from the private sector, the Commission met monthly over the last year to discuss and craft these recommendations. 

Overall, the Commission’s report points to the need for a foundational shift in our nation’s relationship with wildfire – and our approach to solve the wildfire crisis. This type of ideological change can only happen if all jurisdictions are involved, meaning that partnerships, coordination, and cooperation are more important than ever before. This all-hands approach will also coordinate, integrate, and strategically align the fire-related science, data, and technology we need to address the wildfire crisis. Together with Tribes and our federal, state, and local partners, along with industry and private interest groups, we will continue building the foundation of partnerships and collaboration that will help lead the nation toward a different relationship and experience with wildfire.

Interior’s efforts to increase the pace and scale of fuels management projects are supported by strong collaborative efforts with our federal, Tribal, state and local partners. This past year, Interior completed more than 2.5 million acres of treatments, which is a 30 percent increase over last year’s treatment level. As we look toward 2024, Interior’s goal is to maintain and expand on these accomplishments through our commitment to long-term, sustained investments and collaborative, landscape-scale projects – which are also recurring themes throughout the commission’s recommendations.

As Interior plans for the 2024 fire year, workforce transformation continues to be paramount as well. We are persistent in our efforts to work with Congress on a permanent wildland firefighter pay solution, along with our other ongoing wildland fire workforce reform efforts that include a health and wellbeing program, implementing the new 0456 Wildland Fire Management Occupational Series, enhanced training, increasing the number of permanent positions, and addressing wildland firefighter housing in areas where living costs have outpaced wages. 

Reflecting on the 2023 fire year also means being thankful for our wildland firefighting workforce, and the fact that no Interior wildland fire personnel were lost in the line of duty this past year. As we look toward 2024, safety and supporting the wildland firefighting workforce will continue to be the fuel that drives our wildland firefighting mission.

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.

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