(June 29, 2021)
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.