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‘The fight against climate change’: Interior secretary highlights fire risk, investments

UPDATED: Sat., June 18, 2022

Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland meets with with Boise District BLM firefighters Jake Vincent, left, Sarah Peterson, Chad Niblett and Dustin Zahrt, right.  (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman)
Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland meets with with Boise District BLM firefighters Jake Vincent, left, Sarah Peterson, Chad Niblett and Dustin Zahrt, right. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman)
By Ian Max Stevenson Idaho Statesman

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited Boise on Friday and announced new funding for battling fires and combating mental health issues among wildland firefighters.

At a news conference at the nation’s wildland firefighting headquarters, Haaland said $103 million in funds from the infrastructure-investment law enacted last year have been allocated to reduce wildfire risk around the nation and to support post-fire rehabilitation and fund wildfire science research.

Haaland, who is from New Mexico, visited Orofino on Thursday to commemorate the transfer of fish production at a national fish hatchery to the Nez Perce Tribe. On Friday, she also spoke about the recent Yellowstone floods and the potential breach of the Snake River dams.

At the National Interagency Fire Center, Haaland stressed the ways in which climate change is worsening the ongoing battle with fire on public lands, which has devastated portions of the West in recent years.

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

The infrastructure law has provided $1.5 billion to the Interior Department’s wildland fire management program, Haaland said. Interior plans to conduct fuel treatments, which reduce burnable vegetation, on 2 million acres this summer, which is 30% more than the department’s agencies performed last year.

“We work with fire years now; it’s no longer a fire season,” said Jeff Rupert, the director of the Office of Wildland Fire at Interior, at the news conference.

Grant Beebe, the assistant director of fire and aviation at 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 about who manages (or) owns land, they just will burn, and our nation needs to respond,” Beebe said.

As climatic conditions continue to warm across the globe, scientists expect that the hotter, drier circumstances could significantly worsen the severity of wildfires in the coming decades.

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

A United Nations report published earlier this year found that extreme fires around the globe will likely increase, even in previously unaffected areas, because of climate and land-use changes. The report made an “urgent” request to governments to retool how they respond to fires.

Last September, Idaho’s Department of Lands reported a 579% rise from 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 enact after it passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the president included an additional $27 billion in funds for fighting fires in federal, state and tribal forests as part of a larger $555 billion package aimed at fighting climate change. Biden’s bill passed the Democrat-controlled House but died in the Senate in December, lacking the support of any Republicans and West Virginia’s Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

“We will take everything that Congress can give us to make sure that we’re moving (climate resiliency) forward,” Haaland said Friday.

Firefighter mental health program

The mental program for wildland firefighters will provide care for permanent, seasonal and temporary employees fighting fires across multiple agencies, according to a news release. The program will also aim to minimize job-site exposure to environmental hazards.

Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire will help create a system of “trauma support services with an emphasis on early intervention,” the release said.

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

“What we see now with the infrastructure bill is more support for that program,” he said.

Haaland noted the particular troubles that affect firefighters.

“Wildland firefighters work in incredibly stressful environments that can take a significant toll on their overall health and well-being,” she said.

Snake River dams

Leaders in Washington state are reviewing the possibility of breaching dams on the lower Snake River to benefit endangered salmon and local Native American tribes.

Sen. Patty Murray and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee released a draft report earlier this month, detailing the significant cost of removing the dams and replacing barge service and hydropower, both of which rely on the river’s dams. Murray and Inslee, both Democrats, plan to decide whether to support breaching the dams later this summer.

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

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

“I think the salmon are incredibly important,” Haaland said. “They have tremendous cultural and traditional meaning to Indian tribes across the West.”

She said her office is communicating with tribes about salmon. The Nez Perce Tribe supports breaching four dams along the Snake.

“They’re the original stewards of these lands, and their tribal ecological knowledge on a lot of these environmental issues are just incredibly valuable and important. So we’re going to keep listening. We are going to respond if they ask for responses.”

Yellowstone floods

Major flooding in Yellowstone has shuttered the national park this week, destroying buildings and roads.

On Friday, Haaland said she had spoken with the park’s superintendent about evacuating people safely.

“My goodness, our first national park,” Haaland said. “Devastating, devastating floods … Our main goal at this point is just to make sure that everyone’s safe and that they get out of danger.”

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