Bureau of Land Management strengthens wildfire response capabilities across the West despite COVID-19
Agency develops COVID-19 wildfire response plans to provide for fire personnel safety
WASHINGTON – While taking active measures to protect the public and employees and minimize exposure to COVID-19, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) continues to reduce hazardous fuels across the West and Alaska and to plan for the upcoming fire season by maintaining and strengthening firefighting capabilities. In conjunction with Federal, state, and local partners, the BLM will use its full suite of resources to prevent and suppress wildfires as the agency adjusts to rapidly changing outbreak circumstances.
“We are committed to protecting our colleagues in the BLM and those with whom we come in contact during this challenging time; however, as westerners we know we must fight fire all year long and we will do exactly that,” said BLM Deputy Director for Policy and Programs William Perry Pendley. “Guided by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention as well as state and local health authorities, we continue to implement proactive COVID-19 measures to protect employees and the public, but, when it comes to fire, we have no intention of standing down.”
Every year, the BLM works with its Federal, state, and local partners to conduct initial attack on all wildland fire incidents to suppress wildfires as soon as they ignite. Aggressive initial attack is the single most important method to ensure the safety of firefighters and the public; it also limits suppression costs. During the COVID-19 outbreak, the wildland fire agencies will continue to work to suppress wildfires with the goal of reducing wildfire size and intensity.
The BLM is also working with its Federal, state and local partners to develop specific COVID-19 wildfire response plans to provide for wildland fire personnel safety. These plans outline best management practices to limit the spread of the virus and to provide a safe working environment for all wildland fire personnel.
The wildland fire agencies maintain a full aviation fleet to suppress wildfires and concurrently plan for above-normal fire activity with additional contract and partner surge capacity. The BLM will have on contract 34 Single Engine Airtankers (SEAT), combined with four water scoopers, seven smokejumper planes, 19 tactical support aircraft, and 25 helicopters for wildfire suppression efforts this year. In addition, the BLM has access to more than 660 helicopters, 100 SEATs, 14 Large Airtankers and Very Large Airtankers, 22 water scoopers and over 400 tactical support aircraft through partnerships and call-when-needed contracts.
The BLM Fire and Aviation program works closely with, and relies on, its state and local partners for all wildfire suppression efforts. During the COVID-19 outbreak, some state governments have declared they will not permit state and local resources to respond to wildfires outside of their local jurisdiction, which will greatly limit the national response capabilities of these valuable resources. The BLM is working with these governments to address concerns and to ensure, to the greatest extent possible, that shared resources are available to be deployed wherever need may be greatest.
“In order to ensure smooth interstate wildfire suppression operations, all wildland firefighters must be permitted to cross state boundaries without restriction to ensure safe and effective wildfire operations throughout the country,” said Pendley. “We beseech our federal, state, and local partners to ensure that ability.”
The BLM will also rely on its employees across the nation who are not full-time fire personnel but maintain essential wildfire qualifications and thus provide critical wildfire response capabilities during heightened fire activity. These employees greatly augment the national fire workforce every year; therefore, the BLM will continue to enhance its workforce with these personnel during the COVID-19 outbreak. The BLM and its partners will also work closely with contractors, emergency hires, and other seasonal employees, as the BLM does every year, to greatly enhance firefighting capabilities.
Overall, wildfire suppression operations will require adjustments and new tactics during the COVID-19 outbreak. Fortunately, the BLM and its partner agencies are skilled in aggressive initial attack operations, as limiting wildfire spread is always paramount, no matter the situation. The BLM and its partner agencies are prepared for wildfire response and will work to suppress all wildfires before they become large, problematic incidents.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News