Interior to launch mental health program for wildland firefighters, boost wildfire spending

By: and - June 20, 2022 6:00 am

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced a new health and wellbeing program for wildland firefighters on June 17, 2022, at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The center, home to about 600 employees, is a command hub to respond to wildfires throughout the U.S. (Audrey Dutton/Idaho Capital Sun)

BOISE, Idaho — The U.S. Interior Department will create a health and wellbeing program for wildland firefighters and boost spending on firefighting efforts by $103 million in fiscal 2022, Secretary Deb Haaland said Friday.

The additional funding, which Haaland announced at the National Interagency Fire Center, comes as part of the $1.5 billion in last year’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure law signed into law by President Joe Biden that’s meant to address wildfires, which also directed the creation of mental health services for wildland firefighters.

Most of the funding, $80.9 million, will be used to broaden and hasten work to manage fuels in fire-prone areas and will help the department reach 2 million more acres than it did last year, a roughly 30% increase, according to Interior. Another $19.4 million will be used to rehabilitate areas after they’ve burned.

The programs are critical now, with climate change making fires frequent and intense, Haaland said.

“One thing is perfectly clear: That climate change will continue to make fires in the West larger and that we must continue to invest in conservation of our ecosystems,” she said. “We must and we will continue to stay coordinated because the reality is that these days … it’s ‘fire years,’ no longer ‘fire seasons.’

“Hotter, drier conditions cause more extreme fire behavior, and the increased frequency of fires in urban areas impacts more homes, businesses and communities each and every year.”

The mental health and wellness program was also a product of the infrastructure law, which compelled Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create programs to address mental health needs, including treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The health program will hire people to respond to critical incidents that require stress management. It will also add health care capacity in four Interior bureaus — Indian Affairs, Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service — to establish a new system of trauma support services focused on early intervention.

Officials said the program will augment and better coordinate existing approaches to helping firefighters stay resilient and recover from on-the-job trauma. They expect several millions of dollars of funding from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but were unable to provide an exact funding amount during a press briefing Friday.

“We have more support to expand on capacity we already have in the agencies, and that’s what we’re super grateful for,” said Grant Beebe, the fire director for the Bureau of Land Management at NIFC. “So (we’re) not standing up a brand new program but actually bolstering one that we’ve had some experience with, and great success with, with our firefighters.”

In a statement ahead of the announcement, Haaland said the aim “to provide trauma-informed mental health care is critical.”

“Wildland firefighters work in incredibly stressful environments that can take a significant toll on their overall health and wellbeing, as well as on those who love them,” she said.

The USDA’s Forest Service employs most federal firefighters, but about 5,000 work for Interior bureaus. Federal wildland firefighters do not receive some health benefits that are common for those in municipal departments.

The Interior Department will also announce $3.1 million for the Joint Fire Science Program, a collaboration with USDA. The funding will support research into firefighter mental health, landscape resiliency and methods of wildfire prevention.

Some funding will also go toward creating a wildfire risk mapping and mitigation tool, which Interior is developing with USDA and the Association of State Foresters.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.

Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Senior investigative reporter, Idaho Capital Sun.