USA – WASHINGTON, D.C. — USDA and the Department of the Interior are gearing up for what’s expected to be one of the most intense fire years in recent history.
“May is wildfire awareness month, but these days, it seems as if the fire season is the entire year,” Deb Haaland, secretary of the Interior, told reporters in a press call Thursday.
The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, predicts 2021 will be another above-average year for wildfire potential in the West.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters he’s “troubled” the signals suggest the U.S. is “headed into yet another very dangerous fire year.”
Jeff Rupert, director of the Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire, agreed 2021’s fire outlook is bad. Nationwide, 550,000 acres are currently burning, and the Southwest already has five large, active fires in mid-May.
More than 90% of the West is experiencing some level of drought, according to agency data. Rupert said he expects the worst fires across California, where drought is acute, but he also anticipates wildfires will hit the Pacific Northwest in June, July and August.
“The drought now is worse than this time last year, and the fire potential across the West is worse,” he said.
In 2020, more than 10.3 million acres burned across the U.S., a record year and more than 50% higher than the 10-year average.
Haaland and Vilsack told reporters what their agencies are doing to gear up for the season.
The Department of the Interior’s land management agencies and USDA are combining resources for a record-sized firefighting team for this time of year, including 15,000 firefighters, more than 500 helicopters, 91 single-engine airtankers, up to 34 airtankers, 360 pieces of heavy equipment and more than 1,600 engines.
These resources will supplement state and local forces.
Vilsack said USDA and the Interior Department staff have been identifying regions where they think the highest fire risks are and pre-positioning people and supplies at those locations.
2021 will probably be better than 2020 in at least one way, said USDA staff. Firefighters who wanted to get vaccinated were able to do so this year, which could relieve some pressure surrounding COVID-19 protocols.
Firefighting last year was a nightmare, agency leaders said, because of social distancing and safety requirements related to COVID-19.
“It was incredibly stressful,” said Patty Grantham, acting director of fire and aviation management at USDA’s Forest Service.
Haaland of the Interior Department said her agency will seek to reduce wildfire risk by confronting climate change, promoting strategic fuels management, investing in new science and technology, hiring personnel, empowering communities to help reduce fire risk and building stronger partnerships with native American tribes.
Vilsack said he’s hopeful President Biden’s American Jobs Plan will pass Congress. It would invest billions of dollars in forest restoration, fuels management and post-wildfire restoration.
But the Jobs Plan, also known as Biden’s infrastructure package, is controversial and lacks bipartisan support because it would increase corporate taxes.
Regardless of what happens with the infrastructure plan, Vilsack said the Forest Service will request more money from Congress to fight wildfires.