BOYS, ID — The U.S. Department of the Interior will develop a health and wellness program for wildland firefighters and increase firefighting spending by $103 million in fiscal 2022.Secretary Deb Haaland said on Friday.
Additional funding which Haaland announced at the National Interagency Fire Center.is part of $1.5 billion $1.2 trillion last year. infrastructure law a bill signed into law by President Joe Biden designed to fight wildfires that also mandated the creation of mental health services for wildland firefighters.
The bulk of the $80.9 million in funding will be used to expand and accelerate fuel management work in fire-prone areas and help the department cover 2 million more acres than last year, up about 30%, according to Ministry of the Interior. Another $19.4 million will be used to rebuild fire-damaged areas.
Programs are now critical, Haaland says, as climate change makes fires more frequent and intense.
“One thing is clear: climate change will continue to increase fires in the West, and that we must continue to invest in preserving our ecosystems,” she said. “We must and will continue to coordinate our actions, because the reality is that these days … these are “fire years”, not “fire seasons”.
“Hotter, drier conditions are causing more extreme fire behavior, and more fires in urban areas are affecting more homes, businesses and communities each year.”
The Mental Health and Wellbeing Program was also a product of the Infrastructure Act, which required the Department of the Interior and USDA to create programs to address mental health needs, including treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
The health program will hire people to respond to critical incidents requiring stress management. It will also add medical capacity to four departments of internal affairs—Indian Affairs, Land Administration, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service—to create a new system of trauma support services focused on early intervention.
Officials said the program will complement and better coordinate existing approaches to helping firefighters stay resilient and recover from work-related injuries. They expect multi-million dollar funding from the bipartisan infrastructure bill but were unable to provide an exact funding amount during a press briefing on Friday.
“We have additional support to expand the capacity we already have in agencies and that is something we are very grateful for,” said Grant Beebe, Bureau of Land Management Fire Chief at NIFC. “So (we) don’t support a brand new program, but actually support one that we’ve had some experience with and a lot of success with our firefighters.”
In a statement ahead of the announcement, Haaland said the goal of “providing trauma-informed mental health care is critical.”
“Wildland firefighters work in incredibly stressful environments that can take a serious toll on their overall health and well-being, as well as those who love them,” she said.
The USDA Forest Service employs the majority of federal firefighters, but about 5,000 work for the Bureau of the Interior. Federal Wildlife Fire Departments not getting some health benefits which are common to those in municipal departments.
The Department of the Interior will also announce $3.1 million for the Collaborative Fire Science Program in partnership with the USDA. The funding will support research into firefighter mental health, landscape resilience, and wildfire prevention techniques.
Some funding will also go toward a wildfire risk mapping and mitigation tool that the Department of the Interior is developing with the USDA and the Association of State Foresters.