Biden announces new steps on wildfires: US must ‘act fast’
President Biden announced a series of steps in response to intensifying wildfires in the western U.S. on Wednesday, calling the fires “a problem for all of us” and saying the U.S. must act “fast” during a meeting with western governors.
“We know this is becoming a regular cycle and we know it’s getting worse,” Biden said in a briefing. “The truth is, we’re playing catch-up. This is an area that’s been under-resourced, but that’s going to change if we have anything to do with it.”
Biden said his administration would hold annual briefings to coincide with the start of the wildfire season.
“Wildfires are not a partisan phenomenon,” Biden added. “We need a coordinated, comprehensive response … and we want to know what you, the states and localities and tribal governments, those on the front lines, are facing in this danger, and what you think would help the most.”
The president emphasized the urgency of working to prevent large fires amid a historic heat wave hitting the West and Pacific Northwest, fueling drought conditions and wildfires.
“Right now we have to act and act fast. We’re late in the game here,” Biden said.
Biden said the federal government would increase the minimum wage for federal firefighters to $15 an hour, calling the current $13 wage “unacceptable.” During a visit last week to the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters, Biden called the rate “ridiculously low.”
The president further said the government is taking action to make more federal firefighter positions permanent rather than seasonal, “so that when fires aren’t burning, we have a workforce of experienced hands enhancing our forest management, reducing the risks of future fire seasons.”
The administration also announced increased air capacity for wildfire response, and pointed to wildfire protection provisions in the White House’s budget request for fiscal 2022. The request includes more than $30 billion for wildfire management and relief and a 62 percent increase in hazardous fuels treatment funding.
The wildfires have burned at a rate of about 4,000 fires above average between Jan. 1 and the end of June, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), although the total acreage burned is down compared to a decade ago.
A combination of drought conditions and increased dryness due to reduced snowpack has exacerbated the wildfire season, according to the NIFC. In a release Wednesday, the White House noted that each year since 2015 has seen an increase of about 100 large wildfires.
The president had earlier cited the soaring temperatures in the west and Pacific Northwest as evidence of the increasingly prominent impacts of climate change.
“Anybody ever believe you’d turn on the news and see it’s 116 degrees in Portland, Oregon? 116 degrees. But don’t worry — there is no global warming because it’s just a figment of our imaginations,” Biden said.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has pressed the administration for action on the fires, praised the announcements in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
“The administration is also crystal clear on the human toll of fighting these wildfires and has a plan to improve the conditions, needs, and availability of wildland firefighters,” Wyden said. “Congress can and should bolster these efforts, and I have legislation to lift the overtime pay cap, create a more permanent firefighting workforce and let wildland firefighters work in the winter months reducing hazardous fuels, so there is less fire risk in the summer. The ongoing infrastructure debate in Congress gives us an essential chance to get this and other wildfire prevention efforts, like hazardous fuels management, done. The time to prepare is now.”