US adds $103 million for wildfire hazards and land rehabilitation

BOISE, Idaho – The US is adding $103 million this year to reduce wildfire risk and clean up burnt areas across the country and establish an interagency health and well-being program for wilderness firefighters, Home Secretary Deb Haaland announced on Friday.

Haaland made the announcement following a briefing on this year’s wildfire season at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, which coordinates the nation’s wildland firefighting efforts.

The US is having one of the worst starts to the wildfire season, with more than 30,000 wildfires scorching 12,000 square kilometers. That’s well above the 10-year average for the same period, about 23,500 wildfires and 1,800 square miles (4,700 square kilometers) burned.

About $80 million will be used to expedite work to eliminate potential wildfire hazards on more than 3,000 square miles (7,700 square kilometers) of Interior Department land, a 30% increase from the previous year. An additional $20 million will be used to support landscape recovery after the wildfires.

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The money comes from the $1 trillion infrastructure deal that President Joe Biden signed late last year.

“As the wildfire season grows longer, more intense, and more dangerous, President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill brings much-needed support to communities across the country to increase the country’s resilience and better support federal wildfire departments,” Haaland said.

The Firefighter Wellbeing Program, which includes the Forest Service, addresses the physical and mental health needs of seasonal and year-round wilderness firefighters and includes treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. The fire center has in recent years begun encouraging firefighters to seek mental health care following an increase in firefighter suicides in the wild.

“Firefighters in wildland work in incredibly stressful environments that can have a significant impact on their overall health and well-being, as well as those they love,” Haaland said. “It is critical to have a focused multi-agency effort to deliver trauma-informed mental health care.”

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The Home Office program will establish year-round prevention and mental health training for wilderness firefighters. The Home Office’s Office of Wildland Fire will help create a new system for trauma support services that emphasizes early intervention.

Approximately $3 million will be used for climate-related research covering landscape resilience, mandated fires, carbon storage, and greenhouse gas and smoke emissions.

A portion of the money will be used to further develop a wildfire risk mapping and mitigation tool being developed by the Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters. This tool could help identify high-risk areas and make them a priority for treatment.

“We’re working with fire years now — it’s not fire season anymore,” said Jeff Rupert, director of the Home Office’s Office of Wildland Fire, who attended Friday’s announcement. “That means we have to do the hard work of reducing fire risk and recovering from fires while also responding to fires.”

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With the recent financial backing, “we’re investing in all of these phases,” he said.

Haaland also visited the US Geological Survey in Boise, where scientists are working to better understand the sagebrush steppe in the western United States, which has been ravaged by huge wildfires in recent decades as invasive species, particularly cheatgrass, have moved in. Scientists want to do this to areas that are more resilient to wildfires and help them recover.

“The science is ongoing,” Haaland said. “I want you to know that all of us — all of the departments, the agencies, the Department of Interior offices, which includes the USGS — are working together to make sure the science complements the work that firefighters are doing.”

Wildfire seasons have become longer and longer as climate change has made the West much warmer and drier over the past 30 years, and scientists have long warned that the weather will get wilder as the world warms.

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“One thing is deeply clear,” said Haaland. “Climate change will continue to increase fires in the west and we must continue to invest in conserving our ecosystem. Nature is our greatest ally in the fight against climate change.”

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/news/politics/2022/06/17/us-adds-103m-for-wildfire-hazards-and-land-rehabilitation/ US adds $103 million for wildfire hazards and land rehabilitation

Sarah Y. Kim

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