With peak wildfire activity predicted in the coming months, the Department of the Interior (DOI) has been working tirelessly to implement preventative measures to limit the size and scope of wildfires, treat current wildfires already underway, and protect wildfire-prone areas to best safeguard people and their communities.
“As stewards of one-fifth of the country’s public lands, primarily in the West, we know that our ability to be prepared for wildfires and reduce their severity is paramount to protecting communities and saving lives,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. “In collaboration with local, state, and other federal partners, we are using everything in our arsenal to prepare for wildfires this year, treating more than one million acres.”
As a part of the DOI, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the National Park Service (NPS), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) contribute to a total workforce of 4,500 firefighting personnel, 500 tribal firefighters, 151 smokejumpers, 18 interagency hotshot crews and 4 Tribal hotshot crews. These firefighters will have over 600 pieces of specialized equipment available for use, including engines, water tenders, dozers, and other equipment. Aviation assets also play a critical role in efforts to manage wildfires as the DOI will have access to 23 single engine air tankers, 6 water scoopers, 41 Type 1, 2 and 3 helicopters, and a number of other aviation resources.
The Trump Administration has prioritized active management of the nation’s public lands as provided in the President’s Executive Order 13855 and Secretary’s Order 3372, which establish a meaningful and coordinated framework for ensuring the protection of people, communities, and natural resources. Implementation of both Orders is a priority for reducing the risks of deadly and destructive wildfires.
This year, the BLM began analyzing a significant, 11,000-mile stretch of strategic fuel breaks to combat wildfires in the Great Basin, which includes portions of Idaho, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, and Utah. This large-scale, collaborative project could serve as a means to better control wildfires within a 223 million acre area. The environmental impact of the proposal is still being evaluated.
As DOI continues to evaluate innovative ways to best limit the destruction of wildfires in the future, it is nearing completion of more than 2,500 wildfire risk-reduction projects on more than 1.2 million acres of DOI and tribally-administered lands in some of the most fire-prone areas of the country. Some of the state totals to be completed and specific projects already completed this fiscal year include:
- More than 43,000 acres of land will be treated.
- Already this year, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, in cooperation with two Alaska Native Corporations and the Kenai Peninsula Borough, has implemented 90 acres of fuels management activities through mechanical treatments and prescribed fire treatments. This treatment is a component of a multi-year fuels break project, initiated in 2016, planned and implemented to protect the community of Sterling, AK. The Sterling fuels break was utilized as a contingency fire line, protecting Sterling from the threat from the 2019 Swan Lake Fire, which has now burned 102,521 acres and is currently 80% contained.
- Nearly 85,000 acres of land will be treated.
- Fuels treatment projects are ongoing with 21,287 acres treated so far this year, including 6,706 acres in the southwest border area. By the end of the fiscal year, more than 27,544 total acres of fuels are targeted for treatment by prescribed fire, chemical application or mechanical methods.
- More than 30,000 acres of land will be treated with some projects including:
- A 93 acre fuels treatment project in the Sandy Gulch unit of the South Fork Mokelumne Project, near the community of Glenco in Calaveras County.
- In addition to the work completed by the Mother Lode Field Office, the Calaveras Healthy Impact Products Solutions, which is a local non-profit partner, has completed an adjacent 35-acre fuel break on BLM-managed public lands. This 35 acres represents the north portion of a fuel break that was identified as a priority by CAL FIRE after the 2015 Butte Fire. The southern portion of the fuel break is scheduled to be completed this fall, and will connect to ongoing fuels work in the southern part of the South Fork Mokelumne Project.
- The BLM California Bishop Field Office made improvements to existing fuelbreaks adjacent to residential areas. Wildland fire crews cut and removed downed trees and limbs on BLM-managed lands, reducing the available fuel load. The project was undertaken in partnership with residents of the community of Wilkerson, Inyo National Forest, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
- More than 27,000 acres of land will be treated.
- The BLM completed a 286-acre prescribed fire near Bayfield, Colorado, called the Rabbit Mountain Project Prescribed Fire. It was completed to restore and maintain a healthy ecosystem and reduce the risk of wildfire to private lands and improvements in the area. The prescribed fire will reinvigorate grasses, forbs, and shrubs and improve deer and elk habitat.
- More than 183,000 acres of land will be treated.
- Already this year, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge has completed 8,747 acres of prescribed fire and 1,839 acres of mechanical fuel reduction treatments, with partners including the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the National Park Service, the Florida Forest Service, and Brevard County. These fuel reduction projects protect residents, tourists, federal employees, public land, and military and private space industry. Minimizing operational disruption and mitigating risks and hazards, the projects reduce the intensity and duration of wildfires, smoke, and road closures.
- Nearly 85,000 acres of land will be treated.
- The FWS and the BLM worked with the state of Montana and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Forest Service to reduce fire risk by removing trees and clearing brush. The project near the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge reduces the risk of catastrophic fires from spreading to local communities. All timber was harvested and supported local economies.
- More than 42,000 acres of land will be treated, primarily from the Red Lake Helitack crew from the Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. They completed a 41,000 acre project to reduce wildfire risk and improve forest conditions. The aviation crew flew for eight hours in coordination with ground support using prescribed burns to remove the grassy understory and replenish the forest.
- More than 85,000 acres of land will be treated. One project already completed includes:
- The BLM Nevada Battle Mountain District has recently completed over 2,115 acres of treatments along roadsides including thinning, masticating, herbicide application, mowing, drill seeding, and broadcast seeding to create fuel breaks to limit the wildfire growth potential of roadside ignitions. In 2018, this fuel break allowed the district to successfully suppress a fire, keeping it from becoming a larger, more destructive disaster.
- More than 134,000 acres of land will be treated overall.
- At BLM Utah, fuels treatment projects are ongoing with approximately 75,000 acres treated so far this year. By the end of the fiscal year, more than 117,000 total acres of fuels are targeted for treatment by prescribed fire or mechanical methods. Fuel treatment accomplishments are continually increasing on an annual basis, with acres targeted for 2019 being the highest planned accomplishment ever.
- Also, BLM is seeking comments on an environmental assessment (EA) analyzing a proposal to treat vegetation and fuels as part of a wildfire mitigation project near Castle Valley, Utah. The proposal covers approximately 1,400 acres of fuel breaks within a larger 7,500-acre planning and analysis area.
- More than 11,000 acres of land will be treated. One project already completed includes:
- The NPS completed a prescribed burn in Manassas National Battlefield Park. The prescribed burn helps to reduce the risk of wildfires and improves the habitat for wildlife.
As wildfire activity likely increases, DOI, in collaboration with local, state, and federal partners, is moving wildfire suppression resources to the most susceptible areas around the country. At the center of this coordination is the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), which coordinates eight different agencies and organizations’ emergency management responses. The NIFC produces a monthly “National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook,” which provides wildland fire potential forecasts for the country. The most recent outlook forecasts potential for above normal fire activity in western Oregon and Washington, parts of California and Nevada, and the interior of Alaska.
“Most of the western states experienced a wet spring, which allowed vegetation to grow thickly and quickly,” said Fire Weather Program Manager with NIFC’s Predictive Services group Bryan Henry. “The wet, cool spring delayed fire season, though now, we are seeing hot and dry weather throughout most of the western states, which is rapidly drying the abundant vegetation and creating fuel for wildfires.”
Due to a cool, wet spring season, wildfire activity has been below normal this year with 27,191 wildfires burning 3,325,456 acres. This is much lower than previous years as around 39,700 wildfires burned over 4.1 million acres at this point in the season last year and 5.8 million acres in 2017.
Last year was one of the most tragic years on record with more than 58,000 wildfires burning over 8.8 million acres. Additionally, nearly 26,000 structures were destroyed, more than double the previous annual record.
The DOI is currently managing wildfire incidents in Alaska, Arizona, Montana, Nevada, Utah, and Washington, and has deployed personnel, aircraft, and equipment throughout the country to work with interagency firefighting partners.