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Infrastructure plan invests in wildfire response

Over the last several years, communities here in Oregon have seen firsthand the impacts of wildfire that continue to shock the nation. From otherworldly images of an orange sky to homes, schools and entire communities ablaze, folks across the West have born the brunt of increasingly extreme fire behavior.

The reality is that these days, “fire season” lasts for much of the year. During a recent trip to Oregon, Interior Department leadership saw how climate change is driving the devastating intersection of extreme heat, drought, and wildland fire danger across the West. It has hastened a ‘blinking code red’ situation where wildfires move with a speed and intensity previously unseen.

This has created conditions in which wildfires overwhelm response capabilities, resulting in billions of dollars in economic losses, damage to natural resources, devastation to communities, and the tragic loss of human life.

By making smart investments in critical infrastructure and wildland fire response, the Biden-Harris administration’s Build Back Better Agenda is helping better prepare communities and ecosystems against the threat of wildland fire.

Paramount to this issue is promoting climate resiliency across landscapes and communities, modernizing the firefighter workforce while creating good-paying jobs, and protecting the safety and long-term wellbeing of our wildland firefighters and incident responders.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal recently signed by President Biden includes more than $8 billion for federal wildland fire management programs so that we can improve firefighter pay, reduce hazardous fuels on the landscape, and restore lands after the fire.

The infrastructure deal also makes historic investments to restore and leverage nature-based infrastructure to protect communities and the environment. This focus on climate resiliency is integral to our efforts to advance environmental justice by helping safeguard communities of color from the climate crisis, given that people of color face a disproportionate vulnerability to wildland fire risks.

Increasing the resiliency of communities at risk for wildfire also means a commitment to personnel, science, and technology that will lead to better-informed and more effective land management decisions, as well as investing in clean energy technology and infrastructure. As part of this commitment, the Administration recently increased frontline firefighters’ pay to ensure that no federal firefighter makes less than $15 an hour this year.

At the Department of the Interior, we are also working to hire more firefighters and convert more than 500 of our seasonal firefighters into permanent, career positions this year. This will also support more fuels management work to be accomplished when fires aren’t burning.

We are also committed to using the latest science and technologies to enhance our operational capability and decision-making, so that when firefighting resources are used, they are able to work safely and effectively and protect critical infrastructure and natural resources.

Wildland fire is an all-hands effort. No single organization can do it alone. By collaborating with partners, local communities, Tribes, and our dedicated firefighters, we are putting our fire programs on a more proactive footing to not only manage wildfires as they occur, but to help prevent them from taking hold.

We owe the brave women and men on the frontlines the right tools and training to protect our communities and our lands from the increasing threat of fire. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal helps deliver on that promise. With so little room for error, we must remain steadfast in our commitment to wildland fire preparedness, mitigation, and resilience.

Deb Haaland is secretary of the interior.