In a video conference with Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and other Western governors, President Joe Biden on Wednesday pledged to devote more federal resources to combat wildfires, which have proliferated in recent years on the West’s landscapes parched by long-term drought.
The president vowed to expand the firefighting workforce, providing better pay and bonuses to recruit and retain skilled personnel, to bring more helicopters and air tankers into the nation’s firefighting fleet and to harness satellite technology for early detection of wildfires.
“We know 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,” Biden said from the White House with key Cabinet members at his side. “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’s remarks came as Western states are gearing up for what is anticipated to be one of the busiest fire seasons on record, arriving early on the heals of a historic drought and an unprecedented heat wave.
Cox welcomed Biden’s responsiveness to the fire threat and sense of urgency.
“It was a very positive message. All of the governors in the West are excited about the opportunity that we have to increase federal spending and make the changes necessary to get a quicker response and to get a more robust response when these fires happen,” the governor said in an interview during a break in the Western Governors Associations annual meeting. Because of the West’s patchwork of jurisdictions, the federal government has a critical role in managing both fires and the forests.
“This is a problem that is bigger than just Utah. It’s going to take a very close partnership between federal and state government,” said Cox, a Republican. “We took a step forward in that today. It was refreshing to hear what we’ve been pleading for over the past five or six years actually coming together in a positive way, a bipartisan way. And that’s how we’re going to get through this.”
Thanks to a turn toward cooler, damper weather, fire activity in Utah drastically tapered over the past week, according to the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands’ weekly fire update.
The pace of new fire starts had slowed to just 35 starts last week, bringing this year’s total to 457. The amount of acreage burned remained largely unchanged at about 58,000 acres as fire crews continued to close perimeters around several large fires that ignited in early June.
Wednesday afternoon, firefighters were on the scene of a new start in Cache County where it had burned 20 acres on Ant Flat Road east of Hyrum. The Ant Flat Fire was threatening structures, according to Utah Fire Info.
Utah’s fire season started on a record pace, but last year’s 510 fires recorded by the end of June surpassed this year’s total.
It’s only June, but already 9,000 firefighers are deployed on wildfires across the nation, the president said.
“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 look like end of days, smoke and ash that made the air dangerous to breathe. More than 10 million acres burned,” Biden said.
He emphasized the role of global climate change in promoting the hot, dry, windy weather that has set the stage for big, intense fires, like the ones that tore through the West Coast last year. Oregon alone lost 4,000 homes to wildfire, Gov. Kate Brown (D) said.
“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 going to pay them,” Biden said.
Wildland firefighters will earn no less than $15 an hour, he announced.
“I learned that some of our federal firefighters are being paid less than $13 an hour,” Biden said. “Come on, man, that’s unacceptable to me. I immediately directed my team to take decisive action to fix it.”
And because the fire season last nearly all year now, the White House announced exemptions that would allow firefighters to work beyond the limits normally imposed on seasonal employees. The president also intends to create a permanent firefighting workforce, with plans to hire 210 new firefighters and covert 575 others from seasonal to full-time employees.
Additionally, Biden boosted the federal aviation firefighting fleet to 34 air tankers and 200 helicopters. His hope is that having additional aircraft available will help quickly knock down fires that start in places that are difficult to reach on the ground.
“That’s something that Sen. [Mitt] Romney [R-Utah] had been working on as well, to have the strategic assets and have them closely placed,” Cox said. “We will have fires that will happen in remote areas. In wetter years, we let them burn, but in really dry years like this, having those big planes that can get out there quickly—that can be launched and put a fire out that’s a half acre before it becomes 100,000 acres—is really important.”
Cox also welcomed a commitment by Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, to address overgrown or cluttered forests through thinning and prescribed burning.
“That is active forest management. Treating these areas with undergrowth and dead trees or the pinyon [and] juniper that have been spreading and crowding out and killing the aspen, bringing the vegetation and grasses that are much more fire resistant, it’s better for out watershed, [and] brings the animals back in,” Cox said. “Those kind of treatments we desperately need more of.”