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US Forest Service firefighters ramp up readiness for wildfire season

The agency’s new strategy is also aimed at better protecting first responders from physical dangers.
Posted at 5:43 PM, Apr 21, 2024

Forecasters are warning of what could be a busy wildfire season in the United States this year.

As temperatures begin to warm and parts of the country get less rain through spring and summer, the U.S. Forest Serviceannounced it will change its strategy for the firefights likely to come. 

“Our historical traditional approach of overwhelming mass and bringing a whole lot of resources together to battle and to try to manipulate mother nature and wildfire isn't sustainable,” said Alex Robertson, Acting Director of Fire and Aviation at the U.S. Forest Service.  

Robertson said as wildfires continue to burn more acreage and last longer, the agency will dispatch resources and personnel differently, so the most well-trained first responders are battling the most complex fires. 

The agency’s new strategy is also aimed at better protecting first responders from physical dangers and the mental and emotional exhaustion that come with the job. 

“We know we have to prioritize,” said Robertson. “We have to work together to ensure that we're putting our resources in the most efficient, safest place to ensure that we're protecting values at risk. Those values are obviously are our responders.” 

The U.S. Forest Service hopes to hire over 11,300 firefighters this year. The agency will also offer training to allow more teams to be ready for bigger disasters. It is also hoping to retain more permanent, over-seasonal, firefighter positions to ensure there is adequate staffing to respond to emergencies. 

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Flames from the Donnie Creek wildfire burn along a ridge top north of Fort St. John, British Columbia.

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While there is no official start to wildfire season, 2024 has already seen blockbuster fires across the country. Through March of this year, nearly 2,700 square miles of U.S. acreage have been charred. Texas’ recent Smokehouse Creek Fire was its largest wildfire in state history and scorched over one million acres of Texas land, burning hundreds of homes and killing livestock. 

Climate scientist Scott Denning said he believes the problem is one-fold. “Climate change. The main effect of climate change on fires is that it's hot. Not that hard to understand—anybody who's ever had to water their lawn they know that in hot weather, you have to put more water on than in cooler weather, and that's true for our wild lands as well,” said Denning. 

With more heat, the water evaporates from the soil, the vegetation dries out, it becomes drought-stressed, and it's much easier to burn. Fires will tend to spread in a way that they aren't used to. 

The U.S. Forest Service said that, for that reason, preparation for what’s likely to come starts now. “We have to be better at treating the landscape and preparing it for wildfire, so those fires even in warmer, drier conditions aren't as difficult to control, or to manipulate, or as destructive as what we've seen,” said Robertson. “Then there's the third tenant, which is preparing communities for wildfires, and that's the home hardening. That’s the recognition that we're not going to be able to stop all fire.” 

The U.S. Forest Service is also offering updated training for those managing fire emergencies and is working on plans to streamline the administrative component of how the agency interacts with the communities where wildfires occur. 

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.