Joe Biden

Remarks During a Briefing at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho

September 13, 2021

Bureau of Land Management Assistant Director for Fire and Aviation Grant Beebe. Mr. President, on behalf of the wildland fire community, I'm proud to welcome you to the National Interagency Fire Center, or NIFC, for short. And we always say NIFC is a place, not an organization. [Laughter]

We're incredibly proud of it. Thank you for coming. We're honored you're the first President to visit in the 50-year history of the Fire Center, and it's quite an honor.

I'm Grant Beebe. I'm the Bureau of Land Management's Assistant Director for Fire and Aviation. And speaking for all the NIFC partners, I'd like to thank you particularly for being here and for your genuine and intense interest in wildland fire management.

[At this point, Assistant Director Beebe continued his remarks, concluding as follows.]

I'll say people of my age tend to measure fire history in terms of fire seasons, and many of us who are a little longer in the tooth think about the Yellowstone fires of 1988, of course, and what a calamitous fire season that was, and we were sure that was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

The President. Yes.

Assistant Director Beebe. I'll just point out that Yellowstone burned about 800,000 acres in the park. And this year, the Dixie Fire, as you know, is approaching about a million acres itself.

California is setting records for the largest fires in history. Colorado set and then reset records for largest fires in history. So we're entering into a different environment in fire, and we're starting to think about how we need to change our tactics. And we'll talk about that a little bit more.

So I'll say, finally, that another complex, costly, and critical wildland fire year underscores the Nation's need to recommit resources to fire prevention, preparedness, and response. And frankly, we're honored that you're here and that you have made that measure one of your own.

I'd like to pass it on to Governor Little now. I know he'd like to introduce you—or to welcome you to Idaho.

Governor Brad Little of Idaho. Thank you, Grant.

Mr. President, thank you for being here. Grant really put his arms around the all-hands-on-deck in this facility. And all these people that work here is—are a result of years of seeing what didn't work in collaboration and what does. And they just get better at it every year.

[Gov. Little continued his remarks, concluding as follows.]

If you can help us do that, to where we can continue to get these fully agreed-upon plans implemented so that we are not endangering these firefighters when we put them out there because we've got forests or even rangeland conditions where the fuels are just almost impossible to fight, it would be very appreciated. And all the Western Governors stand ready to work with you and your administration on it.

And again, thank you for coming to Boise.

The President. Well, Gov, thank you. I have enjoyed working with the Western Governors.

I—folks, you know, the press has heard me say this before in a different context—but my colleagues used to always kid me when I was in the Senate; I'm always quoting Irish poets about—when I thought it was appropriate. And I think they thought I was doing it because I was Irish, but I did it because they're the best poets. But—[laughter].

All kidding aside, there's a line from a famous poem. And I think—I didn't think of it, Grant, till you just were speaking. And it goes like this, it says: "All is changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born." A terrible beauty has been born.

From the Yellowstone Fire to today, all has changed in a drastic, drastic way. I need not tell Robyn, who—National Weather Service—it's changed, and it's not going back. It's not going back. And we and the Western Governors, we've talked about this. And you know, there's an expression I say all the firefighters here: that God made man, and then he made a few firefighters.

You all are the most incredible people. Now, I'm not being—it's not hyperbole. I started my career with the firefighters as a 29-year-old kid running for the United States Senate, and we've never left one another. And I see the Hotshots out there. I don't want to do any more mass memorial services of the 19 Hotshots that I did back in Arizona.

And the only thing that keeps you all safe is one another. Firefighters have as many injuries and lose as many people as police officers do. But the only thing that really matters is if there's enough firefighters—firefighters protecting firefighters. That's the big deal. That's what it all comes down to.

And I just want you to know that you have the full support of my Government—my administration, I should say—and all those who have major roles in the Government, from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Interior—just across the board.

And so—and I want to acknowledge Senators Risch and Crapo can't be here. And Senator Wyden and Markley were going to come—or, excuse me, Merkley—were going to come from Oregon. We got a call while in flight: The weather is so bad, they can't make it here. And so I just want to thank them for the incredible work they do as well, because this one of the areas where we do have some overwhelming bipartisan support.

And here at the National Interagency Fire Center, the hub that's designed to coordinate the resources to fight wildfires, I'm here to hear what's on your mind and what more that I should be doing, my administration should be doing to try to help.

You know, folks, you know the time of the year when the air fills with smoke and the sky turns a little orange, but that time of year is getting earlier every year. And you know, last week, the air in Boise was thick with smoke from California and from Oregon. And you know, this year, as you've pointed out, Grant, you know, 44,000 wildfires; 5.4 million acres burned. That's larger than the entire State of New Jersey.

When I say that back East—they're used to floods and storms. When I say that back East, they—it's just unfathomable. First of all, they don't fully understand how big the West is, but more acreage is burned than the entire State of New Jersey, which is a big State.

And you know, California: 2.2 million acres this year—already this year. The Dixie Fire, a million acres. The Caldor Fire: 200,000 acres, 1,000 structures. And God knows how many lives risked or lost trying to deal with it.

You know, you've saved many communities—the firefighters—and you saved South Lake Tahoe. And you—and what people are beginning to realize is you risk your lives to do it. And thank God—thank God—we have you.

But you know, fires and frequency and ferocity of these fires—I have—I'm having a lot of international meetings with our colleagues around the world. They're asking. They're asking. Australia, really worried. Australia—helping—but are trying to figure it out. Canada. I mean, just go around the world.

And so, folks, look: The fact is that we're in a situation where too many memorials are—have been held. And I've directed my administration to provide for pay bonuses and incentives to ensure every Federal firefighter—because that's the only authority I have—makes at least $15 an hour. I mean, they should make a hell of a lot—heck of a lot more, but at least $15 an hour. And I'm committing to work with Congress to raise the pay gap for Federal wildland firefighters.

FEMA: 33 fire management assistant grants to help States pay for the cost of firefighting. And it's still not enough. The costs are enormous, you have.

And so, you know, believe it or not, the massive shortage of fire hoses, I think you all get it. But the idea that we went into this fire season with a shortage of fire hoses—that's all I heard from my guys back East and in the Midwest: no fire hoses.

Well, fortunately, they thought a long time ago about a thing called the National Defense Act. And what I was able to do—the, excuse me, the Defense Production Act. And I was able to restart production of bringing a lot of people back to work, delivering 21,920 new feet of fire hose in the frontlines, putting a company back to work that was out of business that stopped manufacturing.

You know, when—and the major is here; he knows about this. While we were—we have a commitment at the Department of Defense to defend home, as well as abroad, and that includes the fire service.

We're now have—we have C-130s for fire suppression, RC-26 aircraft to provide critical fire imagery. And they're based in California. They've flown over 1,000 missions so far—250 Active Duty troops—and I've gotten no pushback from the Department of Defense in this at all—none—to the Dixie Fire in California. And sharing satellite imagery that we have available to us to help monitor growth of the fires.

I've directed the EPA to use this new technology we have to deliver smoke and fire and air quality information directly to people's iPhones. We'll be able to do that very shortly. It may have already begun in some places.

And—but one of the things we have to do is, we have to build back better than what happened before all this began to come apart. And so we have a proposal—and by the way, both my Republican colleagues from this State and the Democratic colleagues from Oregon, who were going to try to be here, all—we all support this bill I put together on infrastructure so when we build back, we can build back better than it was before. And it literally provides for billions of dollars for wildfire prepare—wildfire preparedness, resilience and response, forest management, and public water sources—public water sources.

What people back East don't quite get is that, were it not for the fact we made significant investments years ago in everything from the Hoover Dam to a whole range of other things out here, a lot of people south of you wouldn't have any water and how valuable and serious access to that water is across the board.

And you know, we need to—we have $14 billion for disaster needs, including $9 billion for communities hit with wildfire and drought. We've got to pass it. We've got to get it done. And it's gone through both Houses.

But that's going to—I hope, Governor—be of significant help to you, because States can't burden it, especially smaller States; you're a big State. But I mean smaller States, in terms of population, can't carry this on their back. And so, you know, this is a—we're one America. You know, we have a Federal system because each part of the country is supposed to make up for the other country—parts of the country didn't have.

And so, you know, we need to do more. We've asked for $14 billion for disaster needs, including, as I said, that $9 billion for community—this is over a 10-year period—for—hit by wildfires and drought.

And you know, we can't continue to try to ignore reality. Barack—President Obama used to always kid me. I'd say, "You know, reality has a way of working its way in." Well, you know, the reality is, we have a global warming problem, a serious global warming problem, and it's consequential.

And what's going to happen is, things aren't going to go back to what they were. It's not like you can build back to what it was before. It's not going to get any better than it is today. It only can get worse, not better. It's not like we're going to not have more problems. But we can do this, in my view. The scientists have warned us for years: The failure to curb pollution from smokestacks and automobiles and a whole range of other things is going to have a—going to take its consequences.

And I learned a long time ago, Gov, that—as a U.S. Senator back east, that all the major streams and ponds and lakes—for example, in New York State, they were being polluted, the fish were dying, things were changing. And you know what it was all from? It wasn't because of what they were doing in Upstate New York; it's because of smokestacks in Chicago—steel plants—because it carries—the wind carries that pollution at a height that doesn't affect the State of Illinois or doesn't affect the State of Indiana, doesn't affect Ohio, but it eventually comes down.

Well, you know, I guess you all—I know you all know it. You know, you have the smoke from the fires in California on the East Coast and sometimes blotting out the sky. People are not just worried about COVID; they're worried about whether their kids are going to be breathing.

And so every dollar we invest in resilience—this is part of my message here, and there's a lot more I want to hear from you that you think we should be doing and I think we should be doing as well. But for every dollar we invest in resilience that is building back better, we save $6 down the road in the future. And you know, you all know the number. Studies show extreme weather cost America last year $99 billion. Extreme weather.

It's not just fires. I mean, more people died—I just went—I was in Louisiana, Mississippi, and all through the South for Hurricane Ida. Well, guess what? More people died in Brooklyn than died in Louisiana. More people. The floodwaters were immense. Never seen anything like it. People were drowning in their homes because there was tornado warnings to go to their basement, and all of a sudden, the flood comes through the windows, up to the ceiling. Can't get out. People dying.

So, I guess, to state the obvious, you all are incredible in what you're doing. But I also think about the jobs we're losing due to the impact of supply chains and industries that are being held up.

I'm looking forward to this briefing. My message to you is: When we build back, we have to build back better. It's not a Democrat thing, it's not a Republican thing—it's a weather thing. It's a reality. It's serious.

And we can do this. We can do this, and, in the process of building back, we can create jobs, not lose jobs. We can create jobs.

So my—you know, I'm going to stop here and turn it back to you, Grant. And thanks for hosting us. And I understand, as a former smokejumper, you're crazy too. [Laughter]

Assistant Director Beebe. Used to be.

The President. God love you all.

I grew up in a little town called Claymont, Delaware, and I went to school—I used to tell Frank Church this—I got a—my first job offer, where I wanted—my wife—deceased wife and I wanted to move to Idaho because we think—not a joke—because it's such a beautiful, beautiful State. And I interviewed for a job with Boise Cascade. And in the meantime, there was a war going on.

At any rate—but the whole point was that I used to always kid Frank. But I grew up, it was a little steel town called Claymont, Delaware, when Scranton shut down because of coal mining. And I went to a little Catholic grade school called Holy Rosary. And it was on—before I-95, there used to be a thing called the Philadelphia Pike. And so my mom would drive me from—we only lived about a mile from school, and the school bus wasn't around then—and drive me to the parking lot.

And right across the street from the school was a fire station, Claymont Fire, volunteer fire company, but they're really good. And so all the guys who grew up either became cops, firefighters, or priests. I wasn't qualified for any of them, so I'm here. [Laughter]

But all kidding aside, you guys and women are incredible. You're incredible at what you do. I'm not—it's not hyperbole. If you know anything about me, you know my long, long, long, long, long relationship with firefighters. I mean it from the bottom of my heart. And we owe you more than just our thanks. We owe you what you need to deal with these problems.

I'm sorry to go on so long. Thank you.

And I'll turn it back to you, Grant. And I guess that's who I'm turning it back to. I don't know who—anyway, whoever wants to do the talking.

Assistant Director Beebe. That would be me. Thank you, Mr. President. And you're right, I was a smokejumper, only because I trained to be a teacher and that was way too difficult and scary, so I did something that was way easier. [Laughter]

The President. That's why I left the county council.

Assistant Director Beebe. There you go.

The National Association of State Foresters is a key partner of ours. George Geissler is representing them today. He's a State forester from the great State of Washington.

Welcome, George. I know you've got a couple things to say, so have at it.

Washington State Forester and Department of Natural Resources Deputy Supervisor for Wildland Fire George Geissler. Yes. Thank you, Grant. And thank you, Mr. President, for this opportunity to give you a little bit of insight as to the role that State and local governments can play in our interagency wildland fire management world.

[Deputy Supervisor Geissler continued his remarks, concluding as follows.]

And Federal funding, such as State Fire Assistance and Volunteer Fire Assistance that we received through the U.S. Forest Service, actually helps to expand on that capacity as well as maintain it. And all of that is really getting it down to that helping the rural volunteer fire departments that we all know are across the U.S.

The President. Yes.

Deputy Supervisor Geissler. The partnership and all of the cooperation between State and local governments, though, it's not just for wildfire suppression, like you said. You know, through Good Neighbor Authority, through shared stewardship, we work together with our local governments, with our Tribal partners, and we do all of the critical fuels mitigation work. We do the forest health treatments that are out there. And we're trying to work, as you said, to improve the resiliency of these landscapes as we go and see the impacts of climate change.

[Deputy Supervisor Geissler continued his remarks, concluding as follows.]

So, as chair of the National Association of State Foresters' Wildland Committee, I really do appreciate you coming and putting this focus on wildland fire suppression and what we can all do together to address this issue that we're all facing—be it climate change, landscape resiliency, or threats to our communities. We look forward to working with you.

The President. Can I ask you a question?

Deputy Supervisor Geissler. Of course.

The President. One of the things that I've been working on with some others is——

[The briefing continued, and no transcript was provided.]

NOTE: The President spoke at 12:08 p.m. In his remarks, he referred to Robyn Heffernan, National Fire Weather Science and Dissemination Meteorologist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He also referred to H.R. 3684. Also participating in the briefing was Josh Simmons, chair of the National Multi-Agency Coordination Group, National Interagency Fire Center.

Joseph R. Biden, Remarks During a Briefing at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under




Simple Search of Our Archives