President Biden told western governors Wednesday that the U.S is “playing catch-up” against drought and a heatwave that could put the country on pace for a record number of wildfires this summer.
In a virtual meeting with the governors and members of his Cabinet, the president said he plans to spend more on the climate-related threats.
“The threat of western wildfires this year is as severe as it’s ever been,” Mr. Biden said. “Right now we have to act and act fast. The truth is we are playing catch-up. This is an area that’s been under-resourced, but that’s going to change if we have anything to do with it.”
Among his proposals, Mr. Biden called for increasing wages for federal firefighters to $15 per hour, and offering bonuses to those on the front lines. But he added those boosts are “still not enough.”
“These guys are taking an incredible risk running towards a fire and they deserve to be paid and paid good wages,” he said.
The virtual meeting came as an unrelenting heatwave continues to pound the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the country.
In Oregon, the site of several major wildfires over the past decade, temperatures have exceeded 100 degrees.
The heat, combined with western states grappling with the worst drought in 20 years, has already sparked wildfires in California, Nevada, and Washington.
More than 2,000 square miles have burned in western states this year, ahead of the pace in 2020, when a near-record 15,000 square miles burned. More than 17,000 homes and other structures were destroyed last year.
Attendees included Democratic governors from Oregon, California, Washington, Nevada, and Colorado and Republican governors from Utah and Wyoming.
Vice President Kamala Harris also attended, along with Cabinet members and business leaders.
California is already battling several wildfires this year, with the Lava Fire in Siskiyou County burning 13,330 acres so far. State officials have called on residents to limit electricity use to avoid blackouts.
The state is also grappling with reduced reservoir levels caused by the drought, hampering firefighters’ access to water.
Mr. Biden said the government will provide a $37 million grant for wildfire projects in Sonoma County, California. A massive wildfire erupted there this week, forcing evacuations. Since 2017, the county has been devastated by several wildfires.
“We can’t cut corners when it comes to managing our wildfires,” he said. “We have to act and act fast. We are late in the game here.”
In May, the president announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would double the funding available to cities suffering from extreme weather disasters from $500 million last year to $1 billion this year.