President Joe Biden met with the governors of Western states on Wednesday to discuss the growing threat of wildfires amid a severe drought and record-breaking heat wave across the region.
“The threat of western wildfires this year is as severe as it’s ever been,” Biden said in the meeting with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and other Cabinet members in person, as well as the governors of California, Oregon and half a dozen other states over video.
Biden recalled the “orange skies that look like the end of days” from fire smoke blanketing California last year and all the “families that lost their homes and everything they owned, and too many lost lives,” noting this year “could be even tougher.”
Earlier this year, after the president held his usual annual briefing to discuss preparedness ahead of the Atlantic hurricane season, Biden asked that they start doing a similar annual briefing for western wildfire season, starting with Wednesday’s.
At the convening, Biden announced new efforts to increase wildfire prevention and response efforts, including hiring more federal firefighters and raising their pay to at least $15 per hour.
Federal firefighters, some of whom make about $13 an hour, will receive bonuses to bump up their pay in the short term, according to senior administration officials in a press briefing late Tuesday. Biden, who has called federal firefighters’ pay “ridiculously low,” aims to work with Congress to make the wage increases long-term.
Other actions the Biden administration is planning to help fight fires this year and in the future include training other federal employees as “surge capacity” to help fight fires, improving early detection technologies for fires, and developing new apps and maps for people to check on wildfires growing nearby.
As Western states endure extreme drought conditions and emerge from a heat wave that sent temperatures soaring above 100 in many areas in recent days, the president plans to ask state leaders what additional resources they need to face the threat of wildfires.
This wildfire season, still early on, has already seen more wildfires than last year’s to date — and last year was a record-breaking wildfire season.
Climate change has led to hotter temperatures and drier conditions, creating longer, more destructive fire seasons. For instance, as of 2019, four of the five largest wildfires in California had happened in the past decade alone. But in 2020, four of the five largest wildfires in state history happened that year alone.