Biden Pledges Aid as Heat Wave, Wildfires Grip the West

by Msnbctv news staff

With a record-shattering heat wave suffocating much of the Pacific Northwest and a drought-fueled wildfire season already well underway in New Mexico, Arizona and California, President Biden attended a virtual meeting with leaders of Western states on Wednesday to discuss strategies to minimize weather-related disasters this summer.

“The truth is, we’re playing catch-up,” Mr. Biden said, adding that he was surprised at the absence of federal attention to the details of firefighting when he came to office. “Right now we have to act, and act fast.”

He said he was extending the season for firefighters, so that “seasonal firefighters can stay on the job as long as they are needed.” And he said he was announcing an immediate grant of “fire mitigation funding” to Sonoma County, Calif., which was devastated by fires last year. Sonoma was among the first to apply for the new funding.

Mr. Biden, one of his senior aides said on Tuesday night, had asked for the briefing on federal and state preparedness for the fire season, similar to what he and his predecessors often receive at the opening of hurricane season.

But many of the proposals Mr. Biden discussed at the governors’ meeting — including a permanent raise for federal firefighters to roughly $15 an hour, early satellite detection of fires and better firefighting equipment — are unlikely to be ready for the wildfire season that has already begun in parts of the West, an aide told reporters during a White House conference call on Tuesday. The aide, a senior administration official, spoke on condition they not be identified.

The exception, Mr. Biden said Wednesday, would be some immediate bonuses for firefighters.

The governors of California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming were all expected to attend. With temperatures in Seattle climbing into triple digits over the past three days, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington said Tuesday that he would join as well, according to news reports.

The eye-popping temperatures across the West this week have added to the alarm over the punishing drought conditions already gripping the region.

California, coming off its worst wildfire season on record last year, is bracing for another summer of destructive fires, with mountain snowpack and reservoir levels already near record lows.

The fires last year caused rolling blackouts and forced evacuations across the region, leaving many people displaced and without power. The current heat wave has left tens of thousands without power across Idaho, Oregon, California and Nevada on Monday.

Last week, Mr. Biden met with Deanne Criswell, the administrator of FEMA, to weigh the federal government’s readiness for extreme weather. It was at that meeting that he promised to increase wages for federal firefighters.

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

In the call with reporters, the aide noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was increasing the amount of money it provided to help communities prepare for wildfires. But the official acknowledged that those projects were unlikely to take form quickly enough to make a difference this season.

The federal government can also increase efforts to thin vegetation in forests, which the Biden administration proposed in May. Yet doing so would require Congress to approve more funding.

The most significant ways to reduce the threat of wildfire to people and property are to tighten building standards, pay to retrofit existing homes and push new development away from areas most exposed to fires, according to experts.

But those approaches tend to be controversial, and also require cooperation from state and local officials. And even then, they take years to yield results.

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