Biden-Harris Administration outlines strategic priorities to strengthen the nation’s response to wildfire

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland recently issued a joint memo to federal agency leaders with wildfire responsibilities outlining their vision and goals for managing wildland fires this year.

The secretaries’ memo highlights fire management investments from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, as well as other strategic priorities to reduce wildfire risk, restore ecosystems, engage in post-fire recovery, support the wildland fire workforce, and make communities more resilient to fire.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

“Our wildland firefighters and employees who support forest health have proven time and time again that they can deliver on our efforts to confront the nation’s wildfire crisis,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Whether they are suppressing wildfires or reducing hazardous fuels to lower wildfire risk to communities, they are always there on the frontlines. We need Congress to act now to provide them with the permanent pay fix they need and deserve. We also need Congress to double down by adopting President Biden’s Investing in America Agenda and provide us with a budget that provides a permanent pay increase for our wildland firefighters, expands firefighter health and wellbeing, improves work-life balance, and improves housing they can afford in the communities they serve.”

Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior.

“As climate change continues to drive wildfires with increased speed and intensity, we are deploying historic resources from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda to better protect communities and ecosystems around the country,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. “We will continue to leverage our valuable partnerships with state, Tribal and local governments, and the private sector to address and mitigate wildfire risk, while also ensuring that our wildland fire personnel have the support and resources they need to stay safe and be prepared on the landscape.”

In 2023, the Agriculture and Interior Departments completed an historic 6.85 million acres of hazardous fuels treatments to reduce excessive vegetation that can fuel wildfires. These activities are restoring fire-adapted ecosystems and reducing the risk of high-severity wildfires, which pose greater dangers to public health, infrastructure, natural resources and communities. Increased funding available through President Biden’s Investing in America agenda are continuing to support collaborative efforts to undertake fuel treatments across public, Tribal and private lands in 2024.

The departments hope to employ more than 17,000 wildland fire personnel this year to support communities increasingly impacted by wildfires. The departments are working together to increase support for wildland fire personnel, improve the ability to recruit and retain talented professionals, make the workforce sustainable into the future, and position the nation to address wildfires made worse by the growing climate crisis.

Firefighter pay supplements first introduced by President Biden in 2021 provided the first meaningful pay increase for federal and Tribal wildland firefighters in decades. These pay increases have been enhanced through temporary pay supplements funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and subsequent appropriations.

Since 2021, almost 16,000 Forest Service and nearly 5,600 Interior Department wildland firefighters have received a total of more than $560 million in temporary pay supplements funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. However, the Departments still lack a permanent solution to firefighter funding shortfalls. Without congressional action, firefighter base salaries will return to their previous levels — $15 per hour in some cases — in October 2024. Achieving a lasting pay increase remains a top priority for both departments. The president’s fiscal year 2025 budget request continues the Administration’s request for legislative proposals that provide for a permanent pay solution.

Wildland firefighters work in hazardous, stressful environments that can impact their health and wellbeing. The departments are continuing to develop a joint comprehensive program to better understand the short- and long-term effects of working in wildland fire on mental and physical health and to enable the departments to better support and care for wildland firefighters. The program will expand support for mental health, physical health and readiness, and the risks posed by occupational and environmental hazards.

In their message to agency leaders, the secretaries emphasized that their teams are incorporating the newly updated National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy into departmental policy to provide a uniform framework for wildfire response and risk mitigation efforts. The cohesive strategy guidance will help strengthen partnerships and better enable the departments to work across jurisdictional boundaries to tackle the challenges posed by climate change and increasing wildfire activity.

The departments are further transforming their approach to wildland fire management using recommendations from the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission.

Created by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and composed of representatives from federal agencies; state, tribal and local governments; and representatives from the private sector, the commission submitted its final report to Congress last fall. It included 148 recommendations aimed at shifting our wildland fire response from reactive to proactive, building sustainable and long-term solutions, and creating communities and landscapes that are more resilient to wildfire.

Across the United States in 2023, about two-thirds less area burned compared with 2022. Nonetheless, several devastating wildfires resulted in significant, tragic impacts, including civilian deaths, housing and infrastructure losses, and damage to resources.

In 2024, conditions appear likely to support increased wildfire potential in several areas of the country. While peak wildfire activity is still to come this year, we have already seen wildland firefighters work under extreme conditions to save lives and protect communities and natural resources from the devastating effects of wildfire.