To help address the severe wildfire conditions in the West, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne today issued directives and orders to immediately strengthen Interior’s wildland firefighting efforts.
The action could mobilize about 1,000 additional employees to assist in wildland fire suppression and support activities.
He directed all supervisors to make qualified personnel who can assist in wildfire suppression and support efforts immediately available and delegated authority to waive dual compensation limits so that retired Interior firefighters and support workers can be temporarily rehired without losing pension benefits.
On July 18, the National Fire Preparedness Level was raised to 5, the highest readiness level for wildland fire operations. There are now about 48 large uncontained fires in the West. Weather conditions have abated this week with wet thunderstorms and higher humidity providing some relief to firefighters. Many should be able to secure rest before redeployment.
Longer term forecasts indicate that the West can expect dry conditions to continue to present wildland firefighting challenges. Most wildland fires have been at lower elevations and burning in lighter fuels, but as conditions change and higher elevation forests continue to dry out, the need for additional firefighting resources may increase.
“As we move forward toward the most active period of the 2007 wildland fire season, I am asking that all Department of the Interior supervisors make all qualified personnel immediately available to assist in our fire suppression efforts,” Kempthorne said in a directive to top department officials. “Employees who are qualified to work in fire support assignments should also be made available.”
Employees who are not qualified for wildfire suppression or cannot support assignments away from home should support local fire suppression efforts and provide backup for those who are able to perform off-unit assignments, Kempthorne directed.
“I fully understand that the assignments of those individuals to fire operations may affect other goals and performance measures, such as the amount of hazardous fuels treatments accomplished this fiscal year,” the Secretary noted. “I want to emphasize that the safety of our wildland firefighters is of paramount importance. No matter what the situation, firefighter safety comes first on every fire, every time.”
Kempthorne also signed a secretarial order delegating authority from the Office of Personnel Management to the Deputy Director (NIFC), Fire and Aviation, Bureau of Land Management, to waive the limitation on dual compensation and allow Interior retirees (annuitants) to retain their annuity and receive regular pay for temporary federal employment in support of wildland firefighting operations.
The Office of Personnel Management has approved the Department’s request for delegated authority which applies to working for the National Interagency Fire Center, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This authority must conform to conditions specified by the Office of Personnel Management.
In addition, Kempthorne issued an “All Employee” memorandum, reiterating his concerns for employee occupational health and workplace safety and stressing the need for heightened safety consciousness and increased precautions during the busy outdoor summer season, especially for wildland firefighters.
“Safety is more than just a priority; it needs to be a way of life and a part of our thinking, whether on the fire lines, traveling to fire sites or in camp,” he said. “The ultimate success in our fire season will be measured by the success we have in safely bringing home our employees and protecting the public.”