President Joe Biden on Wednesday said climate change is driving an increased threat from wildfires as he announced new federal response plans during a meeting with governors from western states facing a record-breaking heat wave.
“Right now we have to act and act fast. We’re late in the game here,” Biden said at the White House.
The President said: “The truth is we’re playing catch up. This is an area that has been under resourced, but that’s going to change if we have anything to do with it.”
“We can’t cut corners when it comes to managing our wildfires or supporting our firefighters,” Biden said.
The meeting comes as the western United States boils under extreme heat that has broken records in the Pacific Northwest and put millions of Americans in danger of heat-related health issues. Just this week, Portland, Oregon, set an all-time, record-high temperature three days in a row, topping out at 116 degrees on Monday. Seattle hit 108 degrees, besting the all-time record it set just a day earlier.
Democratic governors from Oregon, California, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada attended the meeting, along with the Republican governors of Wyoming and Utah.
“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 and last well beyond traditional months, traditional months of the fire season,” Biden said.
This wildfire season, Biden said, is already outpacing last season in terms of the number of large fires.
The President announced new initiatives to ensure that federal firefighters do not make less than $15 an hour this year. Permanent federal firefighters working on the front lines paid at up to a GS-9 level will receive up to a 10% retention incentive and temporary workers who commit to continue this season would receive a $1000 Spot/Star Award this year, the White House said.
“Last week, I learned that some of our federal firefighters are being paid less than $13 an hour. Come on, man. That’s unacceptable,” Biden said, adding that he believed $15 was still not enough.
A senior administration official said while it will be in effect a pay raise for federal firefighters, it will come in the form of bonuses while the administration works “with Congress to get a better deal long term, because firefighters must be fairly paid for the grueling and risky work that they’re willing to take on.”
Other response initiatives will include extending seasonal hiring, adding “surge capacity” by training and equipping additional personnel, and adding fire detection resources. The administration will be using satellite and emerging technologies to rapidly detect new fires.
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 working, all the federal government working in close cooperation to support you, the states,” Biden said.
The White House said the bipartisan infrastructure framework that was agreed on last week would invest nearly $50 billion to build resilience to wildfires and help western communities prepare for droughts.
Last year marked the worst wildfire season in California state history, which scientists and California authorities blamed on the climate crisis. Other Western states have also struggled, including Arizona, which along with California, has already seen evacuations due to wildfires this year.
This story has been updated with additional information from Wednesday’s event.