The nation’s wildland firefighting headquarters, in Boise, is getting some long-needed funds

The fire center is the only federal headquarters outside of Washington, D.C. It serves the whole country.

By: - June 22, 2021 4:31 am
National Interagency Fire Center

The National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates the response to wildfires throughout the United States, is located in Boise. (Courtesy of the National Interagency Fire Center)

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise is about to tackle a backlog of deferred maintenance projects that are designed to reduce costs and address safety issues, with funding authorized by the Great American Outdoors Act.

The fire center projects are an example of some of the Department of Interior’s multiyear, multibillion dollar deferred maintenance projects that are coming back from the feds to benefit Idaho. 

“We want to stay on top of deferred maintenance because there is a cost with that,” Melissa Towers of the Bureau of Land Management said.

At the fire center hangar, for instance, Towers said the fire suppression system is 15 years old, requires constant repairs and regularly issues false alarms. It’s about a 7,020 gross square-foot facility that can hold two King Air airplanes or occasionally a helicopter.  

Fire season heating up in the West

Idaho is in a unique situation, hosting the fire center. The 55-acre campus adjacent to the Boise Airport is essentially the national headquarters for wildfire management. Nine different agencies with wildland fire programs are based on the campus. During the height of the fire season, there might be 800 to 900 people at the fire center, coordinating sending a tanker to a fire in Montana or dispatching a helicopter to central Idaho. 

“This is the hub for sending fire management resources throughout the country,” said Jessica Gardetto, the external affairs chief for the Bureau of Land Management Fire/National Interagency Fire Center.

The projects and funding are coming together just as activity is about to pick up at the fire center. The fire outlook for July, and especially for August, shows much of the Mountain West in red, indicating a greater than usual likelihood that significant wildland fires will occur.

The deferred maintenance projects help clear the way for the agencies to work on their main missions. Towers said agencies like the Bureau of Land Management look at deferred maintenance as the repair, replacement or disposal of assets. Tackling those sorts of projects can improve safety for employees, drive down costs and modernize infrastructure.

“In those areas where we are routinely repairing, we just need to replace it,” Towers said.

Department of Interior to spend $1.6B on 165 projects in the U.S.

For fiscal year 2021, the Department of Interior selected 165 projects across the country, totaling $1.6 billion. For fiscal year 2022, the department picked 63 projects.

2021 National Interagency Fire Center projects:

$275,000 for replacing the outdated fire detection system at the fire center’s hangar and repairing the HVAC system. This is being split with the U.S. Forest Service, which is contributing an additional $600,000.

$245,000 for repairing an aging stormwater collection system that is inadequate to manage stormwater in accordance with Clean Water Act requirements.

$220,000 for replacing two aging un-interruptible power supply units that serve a mission critical data center, and for repairing a failing subgrade, heating systems and finishes. 

Other 2021 Department of Interior projects for Idaho include:

  • $5 million to replace the Shoshone Field Office in the Twin Falls District.
  • $554,000 to repair roads in the Boise District to provide public access to recreation, mining, grazing and resource extraction.
  • $553,000 to repair roads in the Twin Falls District.
  • $553,000 to repair roads in the Idaho Falls District.

The funding comes from the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund, which was established in 2020 by the Great American Outdoors Act. 

The Great American Outdoors Act provides up to $1.9 billion per year for fiscal years 2021 through 2025 to help tackle a backlog of deferred maintenance projects on public lands, in national parks and at tribal schools. 

Funding is split between the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Education schools.

For 2022, there are several more Idaho projects on the list, including repairing the 20,000-square-foot administration building at the National Interagency Fire Center to bring it into compliance with accessibility codes. For 2022, there are also projects across the state to repair recreation site buildings, parking lots, boat ramps, docks, roads and more to support people who enjoy hiking, fishing, rafting and biking on public lands. 

Overall, for 2022, President Joe Biden’s administration wants to allocate $2.8 billion in 2022 in projects, grants and programs authorized by the Great Outdoors Act, the U.S. Department of Interior announced June 3.  

The fire center projects, once completed, will support the different groups working out of the center at the height of the fire response, including the Great Basin Smokejumpers, who are based locally and parachute from planes 3,000 feet above the ground to quickly reach fires that ignite in remote areas.

“There is a great benefit to having the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise,” Gardetto said. “It serves as the headquarters for the federal fire management agencies, and it’s really the only headquarters office based outside of Washington, D.C.”

How to be fire-safe this summer

Here are some tips from the Bureau of Land Management on safely enjoying Idaho’s public lands this summer:

  • Fireworks, incendiary/tracer ammunition and exploding targets are prohibited.
  • Use caution when target shooting. Clear all flammable materials and rocks away from the target area.
  • Before you depart for your trip, make sure your vehicle and trailers are properly maintained. Check for dragging metal, which can throw off sparks. Check tire pressure. Look for signs of wear and tear. Equip your vehicle with spark arrestors. Maintain and clean exhaust systems and spark arrestors.
  • Avoid driving your vehicle off the road and into tall grasses.
  • Carry extra water, shovel and/or a fire extinguisher with you when outdoors.
  • Ensure your campfire is completely extinguished before leaving your campsite.
  • If you start a fire, call 911 immediately.

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Clark Corbin
Clark Corbin

Clark Corbin has more than a decade of experience covering Idaho government and politics. He has covered every Idaho legislative session since 2011 gavel-to-gavel. Prior to joining the Idaho Capital Sun he reported for the Idaho Falls Post Register and Idaho Education News. His reporting in Idaho has helped uncover a multimillion-dollar investment scam and exposed inaccurate data that school districts submitted to the state.