Firefighters from the Bureau of Land Management conducted the 1,123-acre Kendall Coulee South prescribed fire northeast of Billings, MT on April 20, 2020. This is the first of several hazardous fuels reduction burns planned for the area. They are designed to reduce Ponderosa and juniper encroachment into sage and grass openings while reducing the potential for wildfire. (Photo by Colby K. Neal/BLM Public Affairs)
BY JEFF RUPERT
This week, the interagency wildland fire community is focusing on a Week of Remembrance, a week dedicated to all of those who have fallen in the line of duty. During this week, we underscore our commitment to the health, wellness and safety of our wildland firefighters.
The Week of Remembrance was first observed in 2014. The dates that mark this week are significant in themselves, beginning by observing the anniversary of the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona and the tragic loss of 19 firefighters, and capped by the anniversary of the South Canyon Fire and the loss of 14 firefighters. Both of these events have impacted the wildland firefighting community on a personal and professional level.
This year’s Week of Remembrance focuses on lessons learned; we are encouraged to remember what have we learned, have we gotten better, are we safer? This includes both remembering the tragic events that mark this week, and also understanding that the lessons learned from those tragedies absolutely must affect how we operate today.
Our number one priority will always be the safety and health of our firefighters and the communities we protect. This means we must recognize when change is needed and listen to those engaged in the firefight on the ground to learn. A great source for this learning is the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center and the variety of experiences that are shared by firefighters in real time.
2020 started off quickly. When the fires finally go out, the remaining winter months are used to recuperate, train and prepare for the upcoming U.S. wildfire season. But this year, for nearly 300 firefighters, it was spent supporting our international partners in Australia respond to they’re record-breaking and devastating bushfires. As Australian fires finally subsided, the realities of the global pandemic emerged.
We’re being challenged in new ways, but the old lessons still apply. We’re changing to reduce our risk of exposure to COVID-19 and we’re learning from the experiences of firefighters on the ground to determine how to most effectively protect firefighters and the public.
During this week we reinforce and recommit to firefighters on the fireline that you are not alone. Across the interagency community there’s steadfast support to provide the resources necessary for you to safely and effectively do your job. Please take care of yourself, your team and your family as the demands of the season press forward.
Jeff Rupert is the Director of the Office of Wildland Fire. In over 20 years with the Department of the Interior, Jeff also served as the Chief of Natural Resources and Conservation Planning for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Refuge Manager of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge (Oklahoma), and Refuge Manager for the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Texas).