August 4, 2021

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‘Times of urgent need’: White House assembles Western governors ahead of wildfire season – USA TODAY

4 min read
  • President Joe Biden is bringing together Western state governors, top Cabinet officials and the private sector to talk about how the country can prepare ahead of an expectedly severe wildfire season.
  • The administration is set to roll out a series of new policies meant to bolster the nation’s wildfire response, including increasing firefighter pay and shifting resources to better combat wildfires year-round.
  • As climate change makes many western states drier and more vulnerable to wildfires, administration officials are also looking at how to make more resilient infrastructure and other preventative measures.

WASHINGTON — As Western states weather a record-shattering heat wave, President Joe Biden will convene a meeting Wednesday of governors, private sector partners and Cabinet officials to prepare for the upcoming wildfire season.

Biden intends to ask the governors what immediate resources the federal government can supply them with to address the upcoming wildfire season, according to a senior administration official. The president is also immediately prepared to bolster efforts at wildfire prevention and combat efforts.

The administration will announce policies meant to increase the mitigation of wildfires while increasing community resilience to fires when they do occur, according to the senior official.

The 2020 wildfire season saw over 10 million acres burned and dozens of people killed in the disasters. As communities adjust to the reality of increasingly destructive wildfire seasons, policymakers are looking for solutions that may head off the worst of the new normal.

The new measures will include increased satellite detection systems and better coordinating of the administration’s placement of emergency resources in regions at risk of fire outbreaks.

The administration is also planning to permanently shift resources toward fighting wildfires as some regions see near-year-round fire outbreaks, according to the senior aide.

Many of the efforts at mitigation are unlikely to be in place by the start of wildfire season, which begins on July 24. Yet administration officials contend that the immediate response efforts will help stop the worst effects of wildfires this year while state and federal actors prepare for the new paradigm around wildfires.

Biden intends to focus “on how the federal government can improve wildfire preparedness and response efforts, protect public safety, and deliver assistance to our people in times of urgent need,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a Friday press briefing.

Biden and administration officials are also quick to highlight the $47 billion earmarked for building resilient infrastructure in a recently brokered bipartisan infrastructure deal as a key step in combatting natural disasters increasingly common due to climate change, like wildfires.

In remarks touting his infrastructure package in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Biden argued the package would prepare “the country’s infrastructure for wildfires, floods and other extreme weather.” The president also poked fun at those who deny the role of climate change in the country’s shifting weather patterns.

“It’s 116 degrees in Portland, Oregon,” Biden said. “One hundred and sixteen degrees! But don’t worry, there’s no global warming. It doesn’t exist — it’s a figment of our imagination. Seriously.” 

Governors convene with the president

The White House meeting is also set to bring together western state governors who have seen wildfires within their borders worsen in recent years.

The virtual meeting occurs in tandem with the Western Governors Association’s annual conference, which is set to center on environmental and energy policy in western states. The group of seven, consisting of five Democrats and two Republicans, includes:

  • Kate Brown of Oregon
  • Spencer Cox of Utah
  • Mark Gordon of Wyoming
  • Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico
  • Gavin Newson of California
  • Jared Polis of Colorado
  • Steve Sisolak of Nevada

Absent from the meeting will be Western governors Greg Gianforte of Montana, Jay Inslee of Washington and Brad Little of Idaho.

Inslee, a Democrat, will not be attending because the meeting falls on the same day that Washington lifts its COVID-19 restrictions, his office told the Spokesman-Review. It is unclear why Gianforte and Little, both Republicans, will not be attending the event.

Increasing support for firefighters

After a June 23 meeting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, Biden lamented the “ridiculously low pay” that federal firefighters receive.

“I didn’t realize this, I have to admit, that federal firefighters get paid $13 an hour,” Biden said at a press conference. “That’s going to end in my administration. That’s a ridiculously low salary to pay federal firefighters.”

The administration will also roll out efforts to increase firefighter retention by raising pay for year-round firefighters and providing other incentives to seasonal workers, according to the senior aide.

Worsening fires amid a changing climate

Recent years have seen increasingly severe and persistent fires in western states due to the worsening effects of climate change on the western environment as well as community expansion into higher risk burn zones.

Scientific research shows that dryness has been intensifying in the West in recent years due to climate change. As global temperatures rise, the heat has contributed to drier conditions.

The administration is set to announce policies meant to increase the mitigation of wildfires while increasing community resilience to fires when they do occur, according to the senior official.

Such measures are will include increased satellite detection systems and better coordinating of the administration’s placement of emergency resources in regions at risk of fire outbreaks.

The administration is also planning to permanently shift resources toward fighting wildfires as some regions see near-year-round fire outbreaks, according to the senior aide.

Many of the efforts at mitigation are unlikely to be in place by the start of wildfire season, which begins on July 24. Yet administration officials contend that the immediate response efforts will help stop the worst effects of wildfires this year while state and federal actors prepare for the new paradigm around wildfires.

Follow Matthew Brown online @mrbrownsir.

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