‘The fight against climate change’: Home Secretary highlights fire risk and investment

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited Boise on Friday and announced new funding to fight fires and address mental health issues among wildland firefighters.

At a press conference at the country’s wildfires headquarters, Haaland said $103 million in funds from the infrastructure investment law enacted last year were allocated to reduce the risk of forest fires across the country and to support post-fire rehabilitation and fund scientific research on forest fires.

Haaland, a New Mexico native, traveled to Orofino on Thursday to commemorate the transfer of fish production from a national hatchery to the Nez Perce tribe. On Friday, she also spoke about the recent flooding in Yellowstone and the potential breach of the Snake River dams.

At the National Interagency Fire Center, Haaland highlighted how climate change is worsening the ongoing battle against fires on public lands, which has devastated parts of the West during the last years.

“One thing is deeply clear: that climate change will continue to make fires worse in the West and that we must continue to invest in the conservation of our ecosystems,” Haaland said. “Nature is our best ally in the fight against climate change.

The infrastructure law provided $1.5 billion to the Interior Department’s wildfire management program, Haaland said. The interior plans to carry out fuel treatments, which reduce burnable vegetationon 2 million acres this summer, or 30% more than the department’s agencies achieved last year.

“We have been working with fire for years; it’s not a fire season anymore,” said Jeff Rupert, director of the Office of Wildland Fire in Interior, during the press conference.

Grant Beebe, deputy director of fire and aviation at the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, stressed the importance of collaboration.

“We know that fires respect no boundaries, they don’t care about jurisdiction, they don’t care who runs (or) owns the land, they will just burn, and our nation must respond,” said Beebe.

As climatic conditions continue to warm across the globe, scientists expect warmer and drier circumstances could significantly increase the severity of wildfires over the coming decades.

Measuring the number of acres burned in US wildfires since 1960, the Congressional Research Service found that the three best years all have been since 2015. Already in 2022, wildland firefighters have responded to more than 30,000 fires across the country, Rupert said.

A United Nations Organization report published earlier this year revealed that extreme fires around the world are likely to increase, even in previously unaffected areas, due to climate change and land use. The report made an ‘urgent’ request for governments to revamp the way they respond to fires.

Last September, the Idaho Department of Lands reported a 579% increase over the 20-year average in acres burned.

In September, President Joe Biden visited the National Interagency Fire Center to discuss the growing threat of fires.

In his Build Back Better plan, which Biden hoped Congress would pass after passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the president included an additional plan $27 billion in funds to fight fires in federal, state and tribal forests as part of a larger $555 billion program to fight climate change. Biden’s bill passed the Democratic-controlled House but died in the Senate in December, without the support of Republicans and Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.

“We will take whatever Congress can give us to make sure we move forward (climate resilience),” Haaland said Friday.

Firefighter Mental Health Program

The mental program for wildland firefighters will provide care for permanent, seasonal and temporary employees fighting fires at multiple agencies, according to a news release. The program will also aim to minimize the site’s exposure to environmental risks.

The Interior Wildfire Bureau will help create a system of “trauma support services with an emphasis on early intervention,” the statement said.

On Friday, Beebe said the Bureau of Land Management has an existing mental health program, which the new efforts will strengthen.

“What we’re seeing now with the infrastructure bill is more support for this program,” he said.

Haaland noted the particular troubles that affect firefighters.

“Wildland firefighters work in incredibly stressful environments that can significantly affect their overall health and well-being,” she said.

Snake River Dams

Washington state leaders are considering breaking dams on the lower Snake River to benefit endangered salmon and local Native American tribes.

Senator Patty Murray and Washington Governor Jay Inslee released a draft report earlier this month, detailing the significant cost of removing dams and replacing barge service and hydroelectricity, both of which rely on river dams. Murray and Inslee, both Democrats, plan to decide whether to support breaking the dams later this summer.

Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican, has already come out in support of a plan to break down the dams, while the rest of the Idaho federal delegation is largely opposed.

On Friday, Haaland said she spoke with the president of the Nez Perce tribe about the tribe’s history with salmon during a visit to commemorate the transfer of fish production at Dworshak National Hatchery at Tribe.

“I think salmon is incredibly important,” Haaland said. “They have tremendous cultural and traditional significance to the Indian tribes of the West.”

She said her office communicates with tribes about salmon. The Nez Percé tribe supports the breaking of four dams along the snake.

“They are the first stewards of these lands, and their tribal ecological knowledge on many of these environmental issues is just incredibly valuable and important. So we will continue to listen. We will respond if they ask for answers.

Yellowstone floods

Major floods in Yellowstone closed the national park this week, destroying buildings and roads.

On Friday, Haaland said she spoke with the park superintendent about evacuating people safely.

“My God, our first national park,” Haaland said. “Devastating, devastating floods… Our main focus at this point is just to make sure everyone is safe and out of harm’s way.”

Martin E. Berry