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Background Press Call Previewing the President's Wildfire Preparedness Meeting

June 29, 2021

Via Teleconference

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. And hi, everyone. Thank you all for joining this call tonight to preview the President's Wildfire Preparedness Meeting tomorrow.

As a reminder of the ground rules, this call is on background, attributable to a senior administration official. And the contents of this call are under embargo until 6:00 a.m. Eastern Time tomorrow.

And with that, I'll turn it over to [senior administration official] to provide opening remarks and take a few questions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining us this evening. Tomorrow, President Biden is convening governors from western states, private sector partners, and Cabinet officials to discuss how we can all work together to strengthen prevention, preparedness, and response efforts for this wildfire season.

In the meeting, the President will ask participants what additional resources they need and what actions can be taken immediately to protect communities, improve emergency preparedness, and address the growing wildfire threat facing our communities. That threat is being fueled by climate change and the devastating intersection of severe drought and extreme heat that is impacting western communities.

Before we go further and preview the topics of discussion in tomorrow's meeting, and outline some of the actions that we'll be announcing, I want to explain a little more about the genesis of this meeting. Historically, American presidents have had briefings at the beginning of hurricane season to look at the trends and get a sense of what the hurricane season will be like in order to ensure that the federal government is prepared, that emergency operations are ready, and that hurricane disaster relief is poised where it needs to be, pre-deployed if it's necessary to be utilized.

President Biden had his hurricane briefing this year on May 24th when we went over to FEMA headquarters to discuss the Atlantic hurricane outlook and the federal government's preparedness efforts. Afterward, he noted to me that hurricanes aren't the only kind of extreme weather threatening American communities. We're seeing record levels of extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest right now, severe drought, and wildland fire dangers across much of the western United States.

Decades of shifting development patterns, land and fire management decisions, and climate change have resulted in wildfires that move with a speed, intensity, and reach that was previously unseen. This has created conditions where wildfires too often overwhelm response capabilities, resulting in billions of dollars in economic losses, damage to natural resources, devastation to communities, and, tragically, losses of human life.

Since 2015, the United States has experienced on average roughly 100 more large wildfires every year than the year before, and this wildfire season is already outpacing last season in terms of the number of large fires to date.

So, recognizing all of those developments, President Biden asked me to arrange a wildfire briefing, too. He is taking this threat seriously because wildfires are obviously getting worse. They're threatening more communities across the western part of our country and resulting in more devastation. And the President strongly believes that it's time the federal government stopped underinvesting in prevention and mitigation efforts and that we started investing in our response capabilities and in our firefighting personnel so that we can better protect the people of this country.

He tasked our Homeland team to take a series of actions to respond to wildfires this year to make sure we're doing whatever we can to mitigate fires before they occur and respond effectively when they do. To make sure we're doing all that we can to protect communities from devastation and to save lives is our mission.

In preparation for tomorrow's briefing, I've held a series of meetings with emergency preparedness officials and with state and local governments on wildfire preparedness and prevention and response efforts.

And tomorrow we will be announcing a series of actions to help fight fires this year and address this growing threat and improve our wildfire response capabilities over both the short and the longer term.

I'll summarize some of those for you today, and tomorrow morning, with a factsheet that we'll release, there will be additional information provided.

First, we will invest in our firefighting personnel, providing retention incentives and raising firefighter pay to ensure no firefighter makes less than $15 an hour. As the President said last week, it's ridiculous that federal firefighters get paid $13 an hour, and we are going to change that. We will be providing additional bonuses to those working on the frontlines while working with Congress to get a better deal long term because firefighters must be fairly paid for the grueling and risky work that they are willing to take on.

We will also extend seasonal hiring of firefighters, hire additional firefighters, and add surge capacity by training and equipping more federal employees and military personnel to be ready to quickly support wildland fires when they happen. Because of climate change, fire seasons are becoming more of a year-round mission, so we are accelerating our plans to transition to a more permanent firefighting workforce.

We'll also increase our wildfire response capabilities through increased aviation capacity and additional resources, and by making critical new investments to protect communities, build communities' resilience, and do pre-disaster mitigation efforts. We are preparing for the potential impacts that our power grid may face as a result of wildfires and improving our emergency capabilities to respond if there is a grid or electrical equipment failure or if power shutoffs happen.

We will also be leveraging the latest science and new and emerging technologies, including satellites, to improve early detection efforts so we know in real time when wildfires begin. We'll use new tools to improve our wildfire mitigation activities, enhance our wildfire response capabilities, and protect our firefighters and residents from smoke, dangerous air, and fire risk.

That means providing actionable information for the American people in real time. We're developing new apps, maps, and resources so people can check their phones, get more information, and stay safe.

We'll be talking about all of this and more tomorrow with the President, with the governors, with private sector partners, and with members of the Cabinet, and we wanted to give you this preview tonight of the actions we're taking to protect public safety, prepare for wildfire season, and be ready to deliver assistance to people in times of urgent need.

As I noted, we'll also be releasing a factsheet tomorrow with more information on everything I just talked about.

With that, I'm glad to open it up to a couple of questions.

MODERATOR: Thank you so much. And we have time for three quick questions if you want to open the lines.

Q: Thank you. I just want to be clear on whether -- you know, how these governors are going to be attending. When I asked in the press briefing on Friday, Jen said -- used language suggesting there would be some folks there in person. Well, this -- now I've been told by Governor Inslee's team that this is entirely virtual. Is that correct?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. So, I'm happy to answer that question. All the western governors are convening for their own Western Governors Association Conference that begins tomorrow afternoon. It will all be virtual. And as a result, our meeting with the governors will be virtual. They will all be on the screen with the President and the Vice President. We'll also have Cabinet members in person here. The private sector partners will be on Zoom, and some of our additional leaders across the federal enterprise will be on Zoom.

So I would say it's a hybrid convening that reflects the nature of our times, and we have set up the technology that we anticipate will work effectively for the President and the Vice President to interact with all the participants.

Q: Hi. I have a question on the pay issue. So, is this going to raise salaries to $15 an hour, or is this going to be made up for in bonuses, as you said, or the bonus is an addition? And just to follow up on that, where is this money coming from for the higher salaries?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, I want to leave it to providing more detail on that tomorrow morning, and that's one of these embargoed points. The way this is going to be done this year will involve the provision of bonuses that will enable the pay for these firefighters to rise to the equivalent of $15 per hour, which they're currently not being paid. And, in addition, our permanent firefighters working on the frontlines will receive up to a 10 percent retention incentive. And temporary workers who commit to continuing this season will also be able to receive some incentive pay.

The goal here in this year, because we have a very short runway -- we have had a very short runway in getting prepared -- has been to find ways to address what we learned, which is that there is this challenge with respect to both recruitment and retention of the firefighters that we need across the nation. And so we're doing everything we can within the confines of this cycle to enhance pay and encourage people to both join the firefighting and be retained as firefighters in the force.

Going forward, we're going to work on additional measures with Congress to move beyond these short-term solutions to address longer-term needs with respect to compensation and benefits and work-life balance reforms for federal wildland firefighters.

Q: Hi, thanks for having this briefing. I was curious what more you can tell us about the pre-disaster mitigation projects that are going to be announced tomorrow. Is there going to be anything that is going to be able to be implemented to try to mitigate fire risk this season, or is it kind of too late for that and this is funding for programs going forward next year and years to come?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, this is part of the BRIC program, the program that we have to build resilient infrastructure and communities via FEMA. And in FY2020, $500 million was made available through BRIC to support states and communities with pre-disaster mitigation. Communities applied for these grants, and we are about to announce a full set of grants to communities across the country for this pre-disaster mitigation. We will announce one of those tomorrow that is a pre-disaster mitigation project that will be responsive to an application from a western state.

However, realistically, I think you're right that this can't be applied by the time this season unfolds, as we are living it already. The money will be granted, and then the program will have to be built for the mitigation work to be done.

But we are beginning that process with the summer 2020 grants, and as you may know, we have doubled BRIC funding for 2021 to $1 billion available in FY2021 for grant applications to be received. And one of the things I anticipate the President will do tomorrow is encourage our western state partners to look at the opportunity to apply for resilience grants through this process.

This is a very important way that we can do preventive work. Those of us who focus on emergency preparedness and response know that prevention is far less expensive than response in so many ways. And so, if we can get ahead of these challenges and do more work on resilience in communities, we then are being -- we do all that we can to protect our communities and also preserve the extraordinary resource of those who are our first responders who are in such demand in these extraordinary times.

MODERATOR: Great. And thank you. That is unfortunately all we have time for, so I'll turn it back over to you.

Joseph R. Biden, Background Press Call Previewing the President's Wildfire Preparedness Meeting Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/350668

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