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Biden pledges to boost firefighter pay, revamp national response to growing wildfire threat in meeting with Inslee, other Western governors

UPDATED: Wed., June 30, 2021

A pickup drives down a dirt road as the Pearl Hill Fire's flames ignite behind it on Sept. 8, 2020, near Mansfield, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland)
A pickup drives down a dirt road as the Pearl Hill Fire's flames ignite behind it on Sept. 8, 2020, near Mansfield, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland)
By Laurel Demkovich and Orion Donovan-Smith The Spokesman-Review

WASHINGTON – In a virtual meeting with governors from eight Western states on Wednesday, President Joe Biden pledged a short-term pay increase for federal firefighters and outlined a plan to change the way the country tackles increasingly long and destructive fire seasons.

Flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and several members of his Cabinet, Biden told Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and the other state leaders his administration would ensure no federal firefighter earns less than $15 an hour and provide bonuses and a 10% pay boost to most permanent wildland firefighters. He also announced new fire-tracking technology and increased federal funding to help states before, during and after fires.

“The threat of Western wildfires this year is as severe as it’s ever been,” Biden said. “The truth is we’re playing catch-up. This is an area that has been underresourced, but that’s going to change.”

Biden said he would also extend seasonal firefighter positions and create hundreds of new year-round jobs, a recognition that because of climate change, “It’s no longer a seasonal job.”

The meeting coincided with a record heat wave in the Northwest and as drought gripped roughly 90% of the American West, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. As of Wednesday, the National Interagency Fire Center reported 47 active wildfires had burned more than 667,000 acres across the country.

After the meeting, Inslee wrote on Twitter he had told Biden “federal wildfire resources are needed, but the only way to save our forests is to tackle the climate crisis.”

“Washington state’s extraordinary wildfire agencies are ready,” Inslee wrote. “But it’s likely to be another difficult wildfire season. This year’s spring was the driest in Washington state since 1924. And the record heat we’re suffering through will only make our state more vulnerable to fire.”

The governors of Oregon, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado – all Democrats – also participated in the meeting via videoconference, along with the Republican governors of Wyoming and Utah. Despite Biden remarking that “wildfires are not a partisan phenomenon,” the GOP governors of Idaho, Montana and Arizona did not attend.

Govs. Brad Little of Idaho and Greg Gianforte of Montana were not invited, their offices said, and the two Republicans sent Biden a letter on Wednesday to say they were “disappointed to learn not all western states who face a harsh wildfire season will be at the table.”

“We urge you to commit that our federal partners, regardless of whether they are based in our communities or based in an agency in Washington, D.C., will be active, responsive partners to improve wildfire response, wildfire preparedness, and meaningful forest management,” Gianforte and Little wrote to Biden.

Asked why Little and Gianforte were not invited, White House officials didn’t provide an explanation and said only that Biden was “looking forward to meeting with Governors of several of the states impacted by wildfires – as well as private sector partners – who will bring a range of perspectives to best inform the discussion about federal-state partnerships on addressing wildfires and strengthening prevention, preparedness and response efforts.”

In a call with reporters Wednesday, officials from Washington’s Department of Natural Resources said they were worried about what this year’s fire season will bring after days of record-breaking heat and severe drought across much of the state.

“We’re usually not this dry and critical at this time,” said Vaughn Cork, Department of Natural Resources wildfire fuels specialist. “It doesn’t look like we’re going to see any significant relief from these conditions.”

As of Wednesday, Washington had seen 564 fires this year, Cork said, stressing that the state is not usually so dry before July 4. At this time last year, fewer than 400 fires had burned in the state.

Janet Pearce, DNR’s communication manager for wildfires, said the department is urging people not to use fireworks the coming holiday weekend because they can easily spark fires. Most fires in Washington this year have been caused by humans, she said, with more than half caused by debris piles burning out of control.

Most counties in the state have some burn restrictions in place. In Spokane County, unauthorized open burning and recreational fires, including campfires, are currently prohibited.

In addition to the federal funding Biden announced Wednesday, the Washington Legislature this year approved $500 million over the next five years for wildfire response, forest restoration and community resilience. That funding will help the DNR hire 100 more firefighters, purchase two airplanes and increase outreach to help communities prone to fires better prepare.

Washington’s Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz told reporters that while that money will help, it won’t be allocated until the end of July, well into the fire season.

“We’ve done everything in our power to secure additional resources to be as ready as we can,” Franz said, adding that she never feels like her department has enough funding to adequately prepare for worsening fire seasons each year.

Orion Donovan-Smith and Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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