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Remarks During a Virtual Meeting With Governors on Wildfire Prevention and Response Efforts

July 30, 2021

The President. Jay, you're beginning to convince the American people there is a thing called "climate crisis." About time. [Laughter]

Governor Jay R. Inslee of Washington. Indeed. [Laughter]

The President. Well, thank you all for being here. I'm going to make a brief statement here, and then we'll get to ask the Vice President to say a few words, get to some questions, and we'll get down to business, if that's okay with you all.

You know, 1 month ago, we convened the first of what will be a regular Presidential briefing on wildfire preparedness. And we're joined by many of the Governors who—we were joined by many of the Governors who are with us today, as well as experts from across the administration and leaders from the electric utility sector.

I said then that the threat of Western wildfires this year was as severe as it's ever been. And in the past month, we've sadly seen the truth of that being played out. Since our last meeting, the number of large, uncontained wildfires has nearly doubled to 66—66 of those fires. And the number of firefighters on the job to battle them has tripled. Over 3.4 million acres have already burned.

In Oregon, the Bootleg Fire has destroyed more than 400 structures, including more than 160 homes. In California, the Dixie Fire has grown to over 220,000 acres and our firefighters are working in really rugged and dangerous conditions and terrain. The number of States are experiencing the impacts of smoke from these fires, degrading their air quality, not just where the fires are burning, but all the States moving east—not all, but most.

In short, we've got big, complex wildfires burning across multiple areas. And despite the incredible—and I'm not—this is not being solicitous—the incredible bravery and heroism of our firefighters, our resources are already being stretched to keep up. We need more help, particularly when we also factor in the additional nationwide challenges of pandemic-related supply chain disruptions and our ongoing efforts to fight COVID.

We've had a few COVID clusters at our fire camps, which further limits resources. It's just one more reason why it's so darn important that everyone get vaccinated, I might add.

Sadly, we've also lost two brave firefighters in the last month in a plane crash in Arizona, and five were seriously injured last week battling Devil's Creek Fire in Montana.

It's—to state the obvious, and you Governors know it better than anybody—it is really, really dangerous work, and it takes incredible bravery to do it. And these heroes deserve to be paid—and paid well—for their work. That's why, last month, I was able to announce—and it's not paying that well, in my view, to be honest with you—immediate action to make all Federal firefighters making at least $15 an hour. I think they deserve more than that.

We're also working with Congress to make sure that our firefighters are paid better permanently. Permanently. So far, FEMA has approved 20 Fire Management Assistance Grants totaling up to $100 million to help States pay for the cost of fighting these fires.

We're also working with FEMA and the Defense Logistical Agency to get ahead of this emergency supply chain challenges. And we still have some supply chain challenges relating to hoses and a number of other things.

We're trapped—we've tapped additional aircraft from the Department of Defense to aid in the fire detection and firefighting. We also welcome the support of our allies, from Australia, for example, sending a large air tanker to—which it's going to begin flying missions this week.

And last month, I also noted that the EPA would be launching an upgrade app for mobile phones to easily share location-specific information with the public about the effects of fire and smoke on air quality for them. It's now even more important, because smoke from many of these fires burning in the West and along the Canadian border is affecting air quality in States across the country.

As of today, the upgrade app—the upgrade AirNow app is live and ready for use. Folks in affected areas should download this important tool as quickly as possible.

I also encourage our States and county leaders to continue partnering with FEMA, as many of the leaders on the scene today are leveraging our public alert and warning systems to communicate information directly and quickly about—to the public about wildfires, evacuations, power outages, and more.

I know several of the Governors' States have used this system recently and send—to send warnings of evacuation orders, and it has undoubtedly helped people and, we don't know for certain, but likely saved some lives.

But we're in for a long fight yet this year, and the only way we're going to meet those challenges is by working together. Wildfires are a problem for all of us, and we have to stay closely coordinated in doing everything we can for our people.

That's why I asked the Governors to join us—Democrats and Republicans alike—so they can update me and the Vice President directly on what they need and what we can possibly do more of. And so we can discuss what's needed today—we have to meet an urgent danger at hand—a plan for what we can do to make sure we're better prepared next time.

One of the important aspects of the bipartisan infrastructure deal that is before the Senate now is it includes billions of dollars—billions of dollars—to strengthen wildfire preparedness, resilience, and response.

It includes funding for prevention efforts, like forest management, and to restore millions of acres of high-risk areas to protect homes and public water sources for drinking. And you know, and overlaying all of this is the necessity to successfully confront climate change.

We may—we have some significant changes we're making in these two pieces of legislation that, God willing, will pass in the next month or so. But we can't ignore how the overlapping and intertwined factors—extreme heat, prolonged drought, and supercharged wildfire conditions are affecting the country.

And so this is a challenge that demands our urgent, urgent action, both today and, as you all know better than anyone else in the country, not just today, but tomorrow, next year, and the year after.

And so I want to thank you, Governors, for your leadership during what is an incredibly challenging period for all of you. God, love you. You're going through—anyway. It's—and I'd like to ask, now, the Vice President to make a few comments. And then, I have some questions for all, and we get in a discussion, with your permission. Thank you.

Vice President.

Vice President Kamala D. Harris. Thank you, Mr. President.

We stand with you. We stand with you, and this is a commitment from our administration that we will not only stand with you, but stay in touch with you, mostly to hear from you. We know that the way that we can help you manage and expand your capacity is through the partnership that we have—the Federal and State Government, along with local governments.

This—this issue is ongoing. Each year, as we have discussed, it gets worse. It affects real people—everything from children who are breathing the smoke to parents who are up at night, concerned that they may get an evacuation order at any—at any moment. So, know that we are here to maximize the federal capacity to support the States.

I'm in DC, but, of course, I'm a California girl, and I care deeply about this. We—as I think I've shared with many of you, our family has been under evacuation orders in the last couple of years. And our folks should not have to fear that they are going to lose their home, everything they have, much less risk their lives in these moments.

So thank you all for your courage, for your leadership, and I look forward to staying in touch with you.

The President. Thank you.

Folks, I asked the staff—because I think it's—I've had the great honor of being, over the last 15 years, in your States and in the wilderness areas and the national parks. And I asked my staff to put together maps where exactly where the fires are and the areas they're in and what they're affecting.

And so I want to start off with you, Governor Gianforte, up in Montana. You have your hands full, man. And I—looking at—at the map, all away from, you know, Poverty Flats and Crooked Creek, all the way up into Ruby and Hay Creek, and the other end of the State. But the big fires look like they're in Trail Creek and Alder Creek—in those areas that are significant.

And I've got—I have a simple question, and it's a complicated one, but what can we do for you that—that we're just not getting done now? What additional help can we give you now that—that is not there yet?

I mean, cut through all the—all the jargon about, you know, all that—we policy wonks are talking about various programs. Bottom line: What do you need? And can we help—you know, that we haven't?

Governor Gregory R. Gianforte of Montana. Good morning, Mr. President, Madam Vice President. I want to thank you for the opportunity to join you, and I want to answer your question because there are some things we can do to collaborate and work closer together.

Just to give a moment of background: As we meet this morning, our heroic firefighters are confronting 19 large-scale fires in Montana alone. And to put that in perspective: Just since January 1, we've had 1,600 fires start in Montana. We've burned about 220,000 acres. These wildfires threaten the safety of our communities.

That Poverty Flats fire that you mentioned, in the last week, burned from initial start to 65,000 acres currently threatening 1,200 households out in the Big Horn County area, our first responders. These devastate our local communities, and the costs keep mounting. We've spent—the State has spent $13 million since July 1 alone.

It could have been much worse. And this gets to your question, Mr. President. Without our State's commitment—and we've shared this with Forest Service and BLM, and they've been very cooperative—to aggressive initial attack, Montana—without that commitment, we would have had many more large-scale fires. And we ask that our Federal partners join us in applying this operating principle. Whether it's a fire that starts on private, State, or Federal land——

The President. Yes.

Gov. Gianforte. ——fires are easier to manage when they're smaller.

And when we get after them, we do much better.

As we continue to confront this wildfire season, we're also focused on addressing Montana's forest health crisis. We published, earlier this year, the Montana Forest Action Plan, which identifies 9 million acres of forest land with significant forest health issues and an elevated risk of wildfire. Of those acres at risk, we found about 4 million acres that would benefit most from cross-boundary forest management.

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

I agree with you, Mr. President. Now is the time to act. I think it's all about aggressive initial attack and getting more proactive in our forest management.

Again, Mr. President, Vice President Harris, I want to thank you for letting me join you today.

The President. Greg, let me ask you another question, if I may.

Gov. Gianforte. Yes.

The President. There's press in the room, and lots of times, I know I do and we all do, use terms which those of us who are in public office—whether it's President, Senator, Governor, et cetera—use, and I don't think—understandably, the American people don't fully understand what they mean. And even I—sometimes the press has so much to cover, I'm not sure they—you talked about the forest health plan. And talk about, as I say to my staff all the time, in plain English, what's that mean. Explain a little bit what that means.

Gov. Gianforte. Sure. So we have many forests in Montana that have not had good stewardship. The growth has gotten to the point—I can take you 10 miles west to the State capital in Helena and show you a Federal forest where 90 percent of the trees are standing dead. They've been killed by beetle when——

The President. Right. Right.

Gov. Gianforte. And this really creates a tinderbox situation. It reduces habitat. So very, very little wildlife lives there. And when we get a lightning strike or a campfire out of control and a fire starts in a forest like that, we put firefighters at risk. They're very hard to control.

The State has been very proactive. We—the State has about 5 million acres. We've been very active in being stewards of those grounds. And when we thin a forest—this is not clear cuts——

The President. Right.

Gov. Gianforte. ——but when we thin, when we remove excess fuels, water comes back into surface streams, wildlife comes back into that community. And when wildfire goes through a managed forest, it doesn't then get into the crown. It doesn't burn as hot. We don't have the devastation. And structures aren't threatened. So everybody wins when we have good stewardship of the forest.

The President. That's really important. I—believe it or not, I knew that. But that's really important for people to get it. Because we talk about thinning out the forest. We're talking about a lot of trees, because of climate change as well, where you have bugs, insects, eating up the trees as well, making things that are changing and killing the forest themselves, and they become real tinder. And it's like, you know, dropping a match in a—you know, in—almost like in a pool of fuel.

And so going in and cutting all that out is not the same as going in—I'm glad you made the point of clear cutting—going in and just—so I—look, we do have, and we're—I'm hopeful that we're going to get a lot of the infrastructure plan passed and the recovery act that has a lot of money in here to help you all manage these forests and to have much more money in there for the Bureau of Land Management—anyway—to be able to give you the help you need. Because your State, which I've been through, is a magnificently beautiful State.

It's—and I mean—and the thing—you know, you—I come from the State of Delaware. And you know, you had—we had more acreage burned last year than the State of Delaware and Maryland combined—combined. For you all out in Montana, that ain't much [Laughter] But I want people to get a sense of how massive—how massive—these fires are and how they affect water systems and—anyway, but that's—I'm sorry to take your time, but I wanted you to be able to explain that so people understand that are listening to this.

Let me ask you—let me ask you, Governor Inslee: You know, you've been talking about the impacts of environmental change for a long, long time. And one of the things—and I asked them to show me—to get me a map of where all your fires are in your State. And when you have Delancy and Cub Creek 2 and Cedar Creek, I mean, they're massive fires. Massive.

And what are—you know, as you look at what's transpired over the past month and you look at the road ahead of this wildfire scene, what is your biggest concern, Jay? What is your biggest concern? And again, I ask you the same question: What is the thing we can do most? I mean, you go all the way from Delancy down to "Lil' Crick," as they say, the Creek—[laughter]—you know down in the southwest—southeast part of your State. What are your biggest concerns?

Gov. Inslee. Well, first off, thanks for your leadership, Mr. President. It is so refreshing to have a President who really cares about the Western forest.

My biggest concern might surprise you because all of the Governors share these immediate concerns. We have a huge need for additional aerial assets, additional dozer bosses so we can get our dozers into fire lines. We need new training—more trained people. We do have an emerging concern about our fuel supply for our aerial assets. Everything we need to fight forest fires is in dire need across the Western United States, not just in Washington State. We've had a thousand fires. It's burned four times more at this time of year than normal. We've had two and a half times more acreage burn in the last decade than the previous.

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

Now, there's some other small things that I'm talking to your staff about, about having better independent assistance for towns like Malden that burned down. There's some other coordination.

The President. Yes.

Gov. Inslee. But that's the thing that's going to ultimately decide whether these forests survive in the next century.

Thanks for your leadership, Mr. President.

The President. Well, thank you for saying that. But you know, one of the things that I say to all your colleagues: When I—when it was proposed to me by some folks that we should have a Civilian Climate Corps of thousands of young people trained to do these things and—at first, it didn't—you know, I said, "Yes, yes, that sounds good." And then, I started looking at it.

And the truth of it is, it's not fundamentally different, in terms of the help it can provide across the board training a lot of these—I'm talking about thousands of young people getting paid to be trained and trained well for a very—it's not fundamentally different than the Civilian Corps put together in the Depression that was—had a different purpose. They were building a building. They were doing a whole range of things.

But I just think I'd encourage—and also, we'll send it to all of you. But all you Governors—Democrat, Republican—take a look at it and see if you think I'm—you know, I may have—you know, as my mother would say, my eyes are bigger than my stomach. [Laughter] You know that I may have a bigger appetite.

But I really think it can be helpful. And there—again, I say to your colleagues, there's a lot of money in here to be able to deal with your immediate needs as well.

But anyway, thanks, Jay. And I'll get—I know you have this, but I want to get——

Gov. Inslee. Thank you.

The President. ——more of it to you.

And, Gavin, I—or, Governor, you know, I applaud your your—your establishing the Wildfire Forest Resilience Task Force, which I've learned is cochaired by your secretary of natural resources. I think it's a great example of being able to coordinate Federal, State, local because this is getting real—[laughter]—this is—this is getting—this is—this needs a lot of coordination.

And I understand that PG&E, which provides electric to 17 million of your folks—I understand they recently announced underground 10,000 miles of power lines. Is that true? And what's that going to do to the cost of energy in your State? And—I mean, because that's expensive stuff.

Governor Gavin C. Newsom of California. It's a million to three and a half million dollars a mile to go——

The President. Yes.

Gov. Newsom. ——underground in California. Do the math on 10,000 miles.

Of course, do the math on decades of neglect. Ten thousand miles—drop in the bucket. They have 106,000 miles of distribution line. Twenty-five thousand just in high-risk, fire-prone areas which will only grow. That's a 10-year commitment. It's important, but I want to put it in perspective.

I also want to put something else in perspective. Your eyes, Mr. President, are not wider than your stomach. California is proving your theory. Over a year and a half ago, we established the Climate Corps in this State. It's inspiring beyond words. It's also inspired the philanthropic sector——

The President. It really is, isn't it? I mean, it's not a joke. It is inspiring when you see it. I mean, it's incredible, I think. But——

Gov. Newsom. Absolutely. And it's the one thing this country needs more than anything else, and that's common experiences and to focus on the things that bind us together, not just divide us.

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

That fire bled into Nevada and, obviously, impacted not just our two States, but deeply impacted the redundancy of this concern that comes out every year around jurisdictions and incident command and the imperative that we're all on the same page, in terms of those initial attack strategies.

So forgive me for being longwinded, but I wanted to get those clear——

The President. No, no that's why we're doing this. I want to find out what's the greatest concerns you have.

And I will—when this meeting is over, I will be on the phone with the Department of Defense and talking about the access to satellite capability.

And—but—I'm looking down the list here. All right, I will follow up with you, Gov—or the Vice President will; she has a mild interest in California—[laughter]—with all the points you just raised, and I do appreciate it.

Now, I want to get to each one of you, but we're going to ask the—I think now is the time the press is going to leave the room, if I am not mistaken. Am I correct?

Vice President Harris. Yes.

The President. And so we can move on.

[At this point, the press was ushered out, and the meeting continued.]

NOTE: The President spoke at 12:03 p.m. from the South Court Auditorium of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building. In his remarks, he referred to California Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot. He also referred to H.R. 3684.

Joseph R. Biden, Remarks During a Virtual Meeting With Governors on Wildfire Prevention and Response Efforts Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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