Remarks by President Biden in Meeting on Western Wildfires | Beaufort County Now | Remarks by President Biden in Meeting on Western Wildfires

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Press Release:

South Court Auditorium  •  Eisenhower Executive Office Building  •  June 30  •  11:11 A.M. EDT

    THE PRESIDENT: (Audio turned off.) (In progress) — proud of our Cabinet. And they're all here today. They all want to be engaged. They all want to help. And so, hopefully we're going to get into some exchanges going down the line here.

    I want to thank you all again for being in the support meetings. So thank you, thank you, thank you. And, Governor Newsom, you trying to make us feel bad, listening in that magnificent background you have over there, and while I'm sitting in here in the — in the White House? God love you.

    Anyway, it's good to see you all, really. Thank you.

    For years, the President has received a briefing at the beginning of the hurricane season, looking at the trends that are coming to get a sense of what's coming so that the country can be better prepared.

    And when I received that briefing this year, I asked for a second briefing that — that does the same thing, but now we're doing it about wildfire season. And we know this is — this is becoming a regular cycle, and we know it's getting worse. In fact, the threat of western wildfires this year is as severe as it's ever been.

    And I wanted to convene this group of governors — of western state governors, key members of my Cabinet, FEMA leadership and the leadership from utility industries, and senior members of our White House team to make sure we're doing everything — and I mean this sincerely — we're doing everything possible to help you prepare for what's coming, and some is already there.

    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. And this briefing is going to be an annual event to make sure we're focusing on preventing fires — the fire threats in the first place — as well as responding when they arise.

    But right now, we have to act and act fast. We're late in the game here. We're remembering the horrific scenes from last year: orange skies that looked like end of days; smoke and ash that made the air dangerous to breathe; more than 10 million acres burned; billions of dollars in economic damage; families that lost their homes and everything they own; and too many — too many lost lives.

    And this year, we — they could be even tougher, based on the weather patterns. You know, California and some other places, drought conditions are twice that's — what they — what they were last year. And right now, we're seeing record heat in Portland and across the West.

    And this [last] year, you know, 21 large, uncontained fires were burning. This year, there are 36 that are uncontained and burning.

    There are already about 9,000 firefighters deployed across the region — from California to New Mexico, to Utah and Nevada — and it's only June.

    I know — I've realized I'm preaching to the choir here. I know you all know this better than any other people in the country.

    Fire season, traditionally, lasts through October. But with climate change — climate change driving the dangerous confluence of extreme heat and prolonged drought — we're seeing wildfires in greater intensity that move with more speed, la- — you know, and lasts well beyond traditional months — the traditional months of the fire season. And that's a problem for all of us.

    Wildfizers [sic] are — wildfires are not a partisan phenomenon. They don't stop at a county or a state line — or country line, for that matter. We need a coordinated, comprehensive response with all the federal working — all the federal government working in close cooperation to support you, the states. That's what this is about.

    We want to know what you — the states and localities and Tribal governments and those in the frontlines — are facing in this danger and what you think would help the most.

    Today, we're taking critical steps to help protect American communities right away. First, we're going to make sure that we have enough firefighters on call who are trained, equipped, and ready to respond for all this fire season. And we're — and we're going to pay them. They — I mean, the idea these folks are running into — anyway, we should pay them.

    Last week, I learned that some of our federal firefighters are being paid less than $13 an hour. Come on, man. This is — that's unacceptable to me. And I immediately directed my team to take decisive action to fix it.

    So today we're announcing what I still think is not enough: This year we're going to provide retention incentives that's going to ensure federal wildland fires are — firefighters are making at least $15 an hour and provide for additional 10 percent bonuses for those working on the frontlines.

    But a one-time boost is not enough. These courageous women and men take an incredible risk of running toward the fire, and they deserve to be paid and paid good wages. You know that old expression, "God made man. Then he made a few firefighters"? Well, it's true. They're incredible. I've spent a lot of time, my whole career, with them.

    So — so we're going to work with Congress, and I know many of your senators and representatives have been working hard on this for — to permanently get federal firefighters a better deal, including improvements in their compensation, their benefits, and their work-life balance.


    The federal government is also offering funding, when governors request it, to train and equip National Guard members so they have a — they're — they're ready to provide a surge of firefighting capacity.

    You know, one of the things I learned over the years, being so deeply involved with the firefighters, is the only thing that saves a firefighter's life is another firefighter. That's the single most consequential thing.

    And, you know, one of the hardest speeches I've ever had to make — and you've all — we've all made difficult speeches — was at the funeral of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters, when the Prescott, Arizona, Fire Department got clobbered. That tragedy happened eight years ago today. That's the reason I mention it. It's hard to remember — of all the costs that firefighters risk when they do their job and their bravery to step up and do the job.

    Now, traditionally, federal firefighting has been a seasonal job, but because of climate change — and I know you all know it, and I hope your constituents know it: there is climate change — it's no longer a seasonal job. This is a year-round mission.

    So we've made sure seasonal firefighters can stay on the job, as long as they are needed this year, by allowing them to work beyond their term. And for next year, we're working to make more than — of those positions, permanent positions so — so that when fires aren't burning, we have a workforce of experienced hands enhancing our forest management, reducing the risk of future fire in the future fire season.

    Second thing: We are harnessing new tools and technologies to better identify and respond before new fires grow into large, uncontrolled conflagrations.

    So, for example, the National Oceano- — the National Oceangram- — Ocean — Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — NOAA — has satellite technology that is able to see from space when new fires start, while they're still small, even as small as the size of your dining room table.

    Similarly, the Department of Energy has a sensor array computer analysis capability that can detect in real time the lightning strikes that might set off a blaze.

    And we're going to use those tools to identify fires that start in remote places and share that information so the firefighters on the ground can respond immediately before a fire has spread out of control. I know that's not a full answer but it's real. It will improve things.

    And we're also going to make sure that the people have a — the information to better protect themselves and their families from smoke and fire risks. This will include launching a new apt [sic] — a new app on — from EPA, so individuals can easily access the latest information on air quality, smoke plumes, and public health guidance.

    Third, we also have to make investments in our future. That's why the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework investment of about $50 billion in the — in the — my so-called — anyway, I won't go into it. But a bill that's caused a little attention — infrastructure bill — is going to build re- — build resilience to extreme weather events like wildfires. Fifty billion dollars.

    And today, I'm announcing a $37 million federal grant to Sonoma County, California, in support of fire mitigation efforts that are underway. This grant is part of FEMA's BRIC program — Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities.

    My administration doubled BRIC funding to support local efforts to strengthen resilience. And because Sonoma knows all too well the devastation wrought by fires, they were the first to apply for fire mitigation funding. I encourage more communities to do so next year.

    And finally, I want to note that the extreme heat we're seeing in the West is not only a risk amplifier for wildfires, it's a threat in and of itself. People are hurting. It's more dangerous for kids to play outside. Roads are buckling under the heat. I need not — again, I need not tell all of you.

    We need people to check on their neighbors, especially seniors who may need a helping hand; outdoor laborers, like our farm and construction workers who are going to need frequent water breaks and shade.

    I want to thank the governors and local leaders for providing information to citizens and the resources like cooling centers where people can go to get relief from the heat.

    And to our utility leaders: We are ready to work with you to make sure that people have the access to power, including air conditioning, under these extreme demand conditions while continuing to advance our climate goals.

    Now, I'm eager to hear from each of you — each of the governors — as to what the experience has been in your state and what we can do better to be helpful. Because this is an area where investing in prevention and preparation today is going to deliver invaluable returns tomorrow. And the federal government is going to have to do — have your backs. And that's going to — that's my intention.

    I'll close by just saying thank you to everyone from the Forest Service, to the Department of Interior and Agriculture, to FEMA, to state and local and Tribal partners, and most importantly, our firefighters for all your incredible work. We've asked so much of the firefighters already, and I know you're going to continue to step up.

    Now I'm going to ask Vice President Harris to say a few words and then we'll move on.

    Madam Vice President, the floor is yours.

    [ ... ]

    Read the full transcript HERE.

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