Meeting with Western governors, President Joe Biden pledged to take measures to boost wildfire-fighting capacity and prevention efforts, citing climate change as the cause for record temperatures and prolonged drought.
The meeting came as 90 percent of the West is experiencing some form of drought. The Pacific Northwest was experiencing record-breaking temperatures and the number of fires and acreage burning this year is already exceeding the same time last year.
“The threat of western wildfires this year is as severe as it’s ever been,” Biden said during the meeting. “Right now, we have to act and act fast.”
“The truth is we’re playing catch up,” Biden said. “This is an area that has been under-resourced, but that’s going to change if we have anything to do with it.”
The Biden administration announced a series of actions at the meeting to expand the federal government’s wildfire response and prevention capabilities. These include boosting firefighting pay to $15 an hour and bonuses as a retention incentive; extending the time temporary firefighters work; and creating a more permanent workforce.
“So we’re going to work with Congress, and I know many of your senators and representatives have been working hard on this—to permanently get federal firefighters a better deal, including improvements in their compensation, their benefits, and their work-life balance,” Biden stated.
Additionally, Biden announced the government would provide funding to train and equip the National Guard to conduct firefighting operations and to provide aerial support with the Air Force. Through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal government would use satellite-based early wildfire detection to provide initial location information to first responders, allowing them to attack fires more quickly. Biden also announced the launch of a new app from the Environmental Protection Agency for the public to access information on air quality, smoke plumes and public health guidance.
Biden noted wildfires are “not a partisan phenomenon” and “don’t stop at a county or a state line.”
“We need a coordinated, comprehensive response with all the federal government working in close cooperation to support you, the states,” Biden said.
Biden also noted that $50 billion in the bipartisan infrastructure package would build resilience to wildfires and assist Western communities in preparing for droughts.
Gov. Kate Brown (D) of Oregon and president of the Western Governors Association thanked Biden for the government’s commitment to train and assist the National Guardsmen. She noted they have been a valuable asset and thanked Biden for funding Good Neighbor Authority projects to create healthy landscapes and local timber jobs.
“It’s a win, win, win. It creates jobs, creates healthy landscapes and reduces wildfire risk,” Brown said.
“More resources to collaborate and provide what you describe as ‘comprehensive, collective efforts’ to reduce wildfire risk would be extremely helpful,” Brown continued.
Vice President Kamala Harris joined the meeting, stating the bipartisan framework for infrastructure will assist in addressing the effects of a devastating wildfire. Additionally, a strategic water policy and the incentivized engagement of the private sector are part of the solution.
“It needs to be, obviously, supporting our firefighters, especially at the federal level, who are not getting paid enough, but it’s also about investing in resilience,” Harris said. “It’s about investing in adaptation, diversifying water policy in a way we are thinking about the storage of water, both above ground and underground.”
In addition to Harris and Brown, attendees included Govs. Jay Inslee (D) of Washington, Gavin Newsom (D) of California, Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) of New Mexico, Steve Sisolak (D) of Nevada, Jared Polis (D) of Colorado, Spencer Cox (R) of Utah and Mark Gordon (R) of Wyoming.
Three governors excluded
Three Republican governors, Greg Gianforte of Montana, Brad Little of Idaho and Doug Ducey of Arizona, said they were disappointed at their exclusion from the White House meeting.
In response, Little and Gianforte sent a letter to Biden urging the government to work with states to “develop and execute proactive plans that ensure we promptly respond to fires that put communities at risk.” The governors pointed to their states’ investment in active land management initiatives such as the Good Neighbor Authority and Shared Stewardship.
Addressing the need for active forest management, the governors said, “It is critical we have a federal partner in the White House who is willing to do what needs to be done year-round to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. The federal government must work with states to actively and meaningfully manage our lands to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.”
The letter concluded with the governors stating they will help other states and the federal government as they face another wildfire season.
Ducey’s spokesperson C.J. Karamargin told AZ Mirror he didn’t know why the governor was not invited to the meeting as the state was currently experiencing record wildfires stating, “You’d think that a state that had experienced the fires we have so far this season could add something to the conversation.”
Karamargin noted that Ducey called a special session, resulting in $100 million in funding to fight wildfires during the Telegraph Fire, which started June 4 and burned over 180,000 acres until its containment on July 3.
The meeting marked the eighth anniversary of a 2013 wildfire in Yarnell, AZ, where 19 Granite Hotshot firefighters lost their lives by the sudden shift in winds that cut off their escape route. Biden mentioned the event at the meeting and said it was one of the “hardest speeches” he had to give at the memorial and recognized the bravery it takes firefighters to do their job. — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor