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Biden Pledges More Federal Help for Western States to Battle Wildfires


President Joe Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland listen during an event in the White House complex in Washington, June 30, 2021, with cabinet officials and governors from Western states to discuss drought and wildfires.

Western U.S. states vulnerable to wildfires and suffering from drought amid extreme heat are to receive more help from the federal government, President Joe Biden announced Wednesday during a virtual meeting with governors.

"Climate change is driving the dangerous confluence of extreme heat and prolonged drought. We're seeing wildfires of greater intensity that move with more speed," Biden said in the White House South Auditorium, with other top officials of his administration, including Vice President Kamala Harris and five members of the Cabinet, in attendance.

Biden said federal firefighters would get a boost in their minimum wage and be kept on the job as long as needed beyond the traditional wildfire season.

'Year-round mission'

Because of climate change, battling wildfires is "no longer a seasonal job. This is a year-round mission," the president said.

Biden and other administration officials spoke from the White House, with the governors joining by video.

Those attending included Democratic Governors Gavin Newsom of California, Jared Polis of Colorado, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, Steve Sisolak of Nevada, Kate Brown of Oregon and Jay Inslee of Washington, along with Republican Governors Spencer Cox of Utah and Mark Gordon of Wyoming.

Not among the group were three other Republican governors from the region: Doug Ducey of Arizona, Brad Little of Idaho and Greg Gianforte of Montana.

Gianforte was "disappointed to learn in news stories" that the president "didn't offer a seat at the table to Montana and other states facing a severe wildfire season," he said in an earlier tweet.

FILE - This photo provided by her office shows Oregon Gov. Kate Brown during a visit to the front line of the Beachie Creek Fire, in Beach Creek, Ore., Sept. 16, 2020.
FILE - This photo provided by her office shows Oregon Gov. Kate Brown during a visit to the front line of the Beachie Creek Fire, in Beach Creek, Ore., Sept. 16, 2020.

Only part of Wednesday's meeting was open to the media, including opening remarks from Biden and Harris, as well as two of the governors.

"Just this weekend, my state of Oregon experienced three consecutive days of record-breaking high temperatures across the Willamette Valley, reaching upwards of 117 degrees [47 C]," Brown told the president. "It is unprecedented. And unfortunately, it follows one of the most devastating wildfire seasons in our state's history."

Newsom said the White House attitude toward the problem had shifted significantly since Biden took office six months ago.

"I've been waiting almost 4½ years to hear a president say what you just said," Newsom said.

"We have an opportunity here to turn the page on the finger-pointing," added Newsom, noting that the country was "literally debating raking policies in this country in the last few years." That was a reference to former President Donald Trump's repeated assertion that not raking floors of woodlands was a bigger cause of devastating wildfires than climate change.

There was no discussion during the meeting about instituting rolling electrical blackouts to minimize risk of new wildfires erupting, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan told reporters at Wednesday's daily White House briefing.

Turning off power to prevent electrical transmission lines from sparking fires is a relatively new and controversial practice. It follows some of the worst blazes in California in recent years being triggered by utilities' equipment.

Grim outlook

The National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates the mobilization of resources to battle wildfires in the United States, has warned that many Western states are facing a greater than usual likelihood that significant wildfires will occur in the next few months.

The U.S. Drought Monitor reports that wide areas of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah are experiencing extreme or exceptional drought.

FILE - Firefighter Raymond Vasquez battles the Silverado Fire, in Irvine, Calif., Oct. 26, 2020.
FILE - Firefighter Raymond Vasquez battles the Silverado Fire, in Irvine, Calif., Oct. 26, 2020.

"This year of drought in the western U.S. is unusually extensive with unusually high temperatures, likely worsened by climate warming. The high temperatures worsen the drought by evaporating more precipitation before it can reach rivers and aquifers," said Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California-Davis.

The climate of the western United States has more variable precipitation than most of the country, and that has helped cities and farmers prepare for drier years. But in this unusually dry year, "farms in much of the state are having more difficulty and are fallowing some less profitable crops. Hydropower production is reduced," said Lund, who is co-director of the university's Center for Watershed Sciences.

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"Forests and communities in the U.S. West face an existential crisis," said Paige Fischer, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability.

Policymakers, according to Fischer, must confront how forests will acclimate to the increasing pace and scale of fires and how human communities can function under heightened risk and still access the ecosystem services they have come to rely on.

Associated costs

There is also a "need to more equitably distribute the costs of fire protection and risk reduction," said Fischer, who leads a research group focusing on human dimensions of environmental change.

In his conversation with the governors, Biden also highlighted the need to invest in wildfire prevention and risk mitigation efforts, including the nearly $50 billion in the bipartisan infrastructure framework legislation Congress is soon to debate.

The White House also announced Wednesday that two military units, each with 200 personnel, were to receive training and specialized equipment to support firefighting operations. The Defense Department will also be ready to supply National Guard and Air Force Reserve cargo plane and helicopter transport crews and equipment to support medical evacuation or water drops for fire responses.

Government satellites and other sensors will be used to improve prediction and detection of wildfires, according to White House officials.