The Agriculture Department is moving to improve its firefighting efforts in the West with more than $490 million in funding provided by the Inflation Reduction Act.
The additional funding will go toward fire prevention efforts in 11 landscapes in Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said those measures will include prescribed fire, mechanical thinning and biomass removal projects.
"[We] obviously are aware of work that was underway in these fire sheds, but that was somewhat stymied simply because we didn't have the resources," Vilsack told reporters. "Now we have the resources by virtue of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, which is allowing us strategically and thoughtfully to continue to expand on activities and efforts."
The Forest Service's 10-year Wildfire Crisis Strategy, introduced last year, identified 250 "firesheds" labeled as "high risk." A fireshed is typically around 250,000 acres in size, according to the plan.
This new funding — together with investments announced previously — will help pay for Forest Service efforts in 134 of these firesheds, according to a release.
Project locations include the Klamath River Basin in Oregon and California, the Sierra and Elko Fronts in Nevada and California and Pine Valley in Utah.
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Vilsack said the USDA plans to create "mobile strike teams" and use new technology that allows it to plan treatments more effectively. He also said the agency wants to look at more effective National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis and use a modernized grants and agreement system.
Last year, the department was able to treat around 3.2 million acres of land, around 90% of the target the agency set for itself, Vilsack said. The agency faced setbacks, however, in trying to get funding approved in a timely manner and ensure it had an adequate firefighting force.
"The reality is that we're doing the very best job we can to hire additional people. We had a challenge with reference to our firefighting force to be able to recruit and we've tried to address that with changes to the pay structure," he said.
Vilsack also said it has been challenging to hire engineers and design staff that are needed for wildfire prevention efforts.
Vilsack stressed to reporters that the new funds won't be enough to sustain the Forest Service's wildfire efforts in the long term. He said more funding will be needed from Congress after the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds run out.
"This is going to require a long-term commitment that spans a number of years," Vilsack said. "We didn't get into this circumstance overnight. We're not going to get out of it overnight. We have to continue to be vigilant."
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