Agency personnel and critical assets are poised to respond to wildfires across the country with peak wildfire activity predicted in the coming months.
The Department of the Interior (DOI) has implemented 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. By collaborating with local, state, and other federal partners, the DOI is using every tool in the arsenal to prepare for wildfires this year by treating more than one million acres. As a part of the Interior Department, 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 a 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 active management of the nation’s public lands was prioritized in 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. The BLM has been 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.
The 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.
The DOI is near 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:
Alaska: More than 43,000 acres. Kenai National Wildlife Refuge has implemented 90 acres of fuels management activities through mechanical treatments and prescribed fire treatments. The treatment is part of a multi-year fuels break project, initiated in 2016, to protect the community of Sterling. 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.
Arizona: Nearly 85,000 acres. 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.
California: More than 30,000 acres. Land treated includes 93-acre fuels treatment project in the Sandy Gulch unit of the South Fork Mokelumne Project in Calaveras County. In addition to work completed by t Mother Lode Field Office, Calaveras Healthy Impact Products Solutions, a local nonprofit partner, has completed an adjacent 35-acre fuel break on BLM-managed public lands. The 35-acre north portion of a fuel break was identified as a priority by CAL FIRE after the 2015 Butte Fire. The southern portion of the fuel break is scheduled for fall, and will connect to ongoing work in the southern South Fork Mokelumne Project.
The BLM California Bishop Field Office improved existing fuel breaks adjacent to residential areas when wildland fire crews cut and removed downed trees and limbs reducing the available fuel load. The project was in partnership with residents of Wilkerson, Inyo National Forest and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Colorado: More than 27,000 acres. The BLM completed a 286-acre prescribed fire near Bayfield, Colorado, 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.
Florida: More than 183,000 acres. 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. The fuel reduction projects protect residents, tourists, federal employees, public land, and military and private space industry by minimizing operational disruption and mitigating risks and hazards.
Montana: Nearly 85,000 acres. The FWS and BLM worked with the state of Montana, and the USDA’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 will reduce risk of catastrophic fires spreading to local communities. All timber was harvested and supported local economies.
Minnesota: More than 42,000 acres. Land treated by Red Lake Helitack crew from the Red Lake Reservation was 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.
Nevada: More than 85,000 acres. Recently completed were projects of 2,115 acres of the BLM Nevada Battle Mountain District along roadsides by thinning, masticating, herbicide application, mowing, drill seeding, and broadcast seeding to create fuel breaks limiting roadside wildfire growth potential. In 2018, the fuel break allowed the district to successfully suppress a fire, keeping it from becoming a larger, more destructive disaster.
Utah: More than 134,000 acres. Ongoing BLM fuels treatment projects affect 75,000 acres treated. By the end of the fiscal year, more than 117,000 total acres will be treated prescribed fire or mechanical methods. Fuel treatment accomplishments continually increase on an annual basis. Acres targeted for 2019 were the highest planned accomplishment ever.
BLM also seeks comments on an environmental assessment 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.
Virginia: More than 11,000 acres. One project completed includes the National Park System prescribed burn in Manassas National Battlefield Park which helps reduce the risk of wildfires and improves the habitat for wildlife.
The monthly National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook report provides wildland fire potential forecasts for the country.
With a cool, wet spring season, wildfire activity has been below normal in 2019 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. 2018 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.