Remarks by President Biden and Vice President Harris in Virtual Meeting with Governors on Wildfires

The White House

Via Teleconference

South Court Auditorium

12:03 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: Jay, you’re beginning to convince the American people there is a thing called “climate crisis.” About time. (Laughs.)

GOVERNOR INSLEE: Indeed.

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, one 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 — 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 the 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 — 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 of 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.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: 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 D.C., 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 — and our folks should not have to fear that they are — 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 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 — 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 GIANFORTE: 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 largescale fires in Montana alone.

And to put that in perspective: Just since January 1st, we’ve had 1,600 fires start in Montana and 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 1st 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 largescale 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: Yeah.

GOVERNOR GIANFORTE: — fires are easier to manage when they’re smaller.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Mm-hmm.

GOVERNOR GIANFORTE: 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-bounty [sic] — boundary forest management.

Given the need to actively manage our forests, I’ve charged our Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to double the number of acres it treats with active forest management this year at 25,000 acres.

But this is just a starting point. We’ll actively manage private, state, and federal land with a variety of treatment types, including thinning, logging, and prescribed burn.

We’ve also invested in 14 different cross-boundary projects in Montana this year. These projects demonstrate the importance of working together across ownership — ownership boundaries to create meaningful, landscape-scale change. And using funds from the state’s fire suppression account and the Forest Service State and Private Forestry Division, we’ll expand existing work and jumpstart new activities.

But it’s not up, totally, to us. We ask that our federal partners join us in doing what needs to be done year-round to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

Of the 9 million acres at high risk, 60 percent of those are on federal land. This makes tools like the Good Neighbor Authority and stewardship contracting more important than ever.

The benefits are really clear: We have healthier forests, improved wildlife habitats, more recreational opportunities, and more good-paying jobs, and, most importantly, less severe wildfires. Without active forest management, we can’t be successful in our forest health improvements.

In closing, I just want to say — I want to thank our federal partners. We have good collaborative relationships here in Montana with the Forest Service and BLM. I also want to thank Governor Newsom and Governor Cox for sending crews to help us deal with these fires that are currently burning. We have thousands of first responders on the frontlines, right now, protecting our communities, natural resources, and livelihoods across Montana, across the western United States.

So many people have sacrificed, and I can’t thank them enough. We can’t measure it in dollars spent or acres burns — burned. We have to keep them and their loved ones in our thoughts and our prayers.

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. 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 — 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.

GOVERNOR 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.

GOVERNOR 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.

GOVERNOR 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 — 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 — 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 (inaudible). (Laughs.) 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 him 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 — in the Creek — you know down in the southwest — southeast part of your state. What are — what are your biggest concerns?

GOVERNOR 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 tra- — 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.

So those are the obvious concerns. And everything you need to fight a fire, we — we could use your help on. And I think you’ve been totally on top of this, and so I thank you for your leadership on all of these things, including management issues. There’s unanimity, there’s bipartisan acceptance of the need for active management. We’re acti- — we’re managing our forests, just like Montana is, to try to get in and reduce fuel.

But here’s the surprising thing, when you asked me this question, or the thing that I worry most about: The thing I worry most about is if, for some reason, the Congress did not follow your leadership in this reconciliation and infrastructure bills that allowed you to realize your vision of creating millions of jobs while fighting climate change. That’s my biggest worry right now. Because the fact of the matter is there is nothing in human intervention against these fires while climate continues to ravage our forest.

You know, we used to think of these things are forests. They really, now, just fields of fuel, and they’re fields of fire with just one spark because they’re so dry. And that aridity creates something like gasoline on the floor of our forest.

There is only one way to prevent these forests from being gone in the la- — in the next century effectively, to be totally unrecognizable, and that is to succeed in following your vision in the reconciliation bill for a clean energy standard, for a huge transition to the electrification of our transportation fleet, to a civilian climate corps.

And so, I want to tell you we are going to be with you, as you stand tall, while you negotiate this reconciliation bill to say, “Look, we have to have those climate investments. There is only one way to save these forests from the ravages of climate.”

Our own federal scientists have said that if we accept a one-degree centigrade change, we’ll have 600 percent increase in these fires on a regular basis. We won’t recognize these forests as forests anymore unless we succeed with your vision.

So when you start having those discussions with Mr. Klain and Steve Ricchetti and everyone else at the end of the reconciliation process, you got to know you’re going to have an army behind you standing tall for those things.

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: Yeah.

GOVERNOR 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, “Yeah, yeah, 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 — 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. You know that I may have a bigger appetite.

But I — I really think it can — 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 —

GOVERNOR 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 and Forest Resilience Task Force, which I’ve learned is co-chaired 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 — 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 — 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 NEWSOM: It’s a million to three and a half million dollars a mile to —

THE PRESIDENT: Yeah.

GOVERNOR NEWSOM: — underground in California. Do the math on 10,000 miles.

Of course, do the math on decades of neglect. Ten thousand miles is a 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 —

GOVERNOR 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.

This transcends politics. We have kids from urban and rural parts of the state, across every conceivable difference, and they’re advancing together in ways that truly are awe-inspiring.

So, Mr. President, that’s — that’s a vision we can manifest. We’re not asserting it; we’re proving it.

In a small way, you have the opportunity to do it in — at scale.

Look, I just want to briefly — because there’s so many of us — a quick update. We’re blowing past every record, and not in a good way. We’re at over 5,700 fires year-to-date. We suppressed 59 just yesterday with some initial attacks. Over half a million acres already burned in California.

To put in perspective — a record-breaking year. Last year, we were at 130,000 acres burned. We’re at 504,000 as I speak to you today.

Here’s the answer to your question. And forgive me for being so pointed again, respecting your time, but I want to be a little bit more specific.

Jay referenced it obliquely. Please pay attention to this fuels issue. We had to get our National Guard to get some emergency fuel supplies for our aerial fleet a week ago. This is a major issue, and it’s not just impacting our aerial suppression strategies on the West Coast. It’s increasingly, as you may know, impacting commercial aviation. It is a major issue.

Number two, we just simply need more boots on the ground. We can’t do without you. We’ve got 7,400 people — 7,400 already. We’re not in fire season. Fire season in California is late September, October, into November. We’re in July. We already have 7,400 personnel actively working to suppress fires.

Last year, the federal government asked us for over 5,000 mutual aid support that we could not provide. That gives you a sense of what the federal government wanted from California last year to send to other states. That should give you a sense of how far behind we are with federal support.

We have four DC-10s, Mr. President. Four. Now, DC-10s aren’t the answer to every problem. They don’t fly over 35 knots. They have restrictions; there are legendary restrictions. But the reality is there is four for the country, and we’re competing. They’re all contracted. We compete with you. We compete with other states. We don’t even have access right now to DC-10s.

We lost that 747 — that iconic 747 — that now has been converted to a cargo plane. You’ve seen that in Australia, not just across the West Coast. That’s now been grounded by a private contractor.

We are the largest civil aviation fleet for firefighting in the world — California. We do not come close to having the tools in the air that we need. We need your support to su- — to dramatically increase the aerial support, in addition to boots on the ground.

Final two quick points: Every year, we’re competing — and you have a lot of legislators that have been doing heroic work in Democratic states, governors — and Republican states — trying to get access to the Pentagon satellite technology for early detection. It’s been a game changer for us. And we’re getting it on a year-to-year basis, but it’s hard. Every year, we fight to get a one-year extension on that access to a critical tool of technology.

I’d encourage you to help us so we’re not just fighting every year for something that I think you would support and the Pentagon, at the end of the day, final analysis will approve.

But here’s the final thing, and it’s the elephant in the room. I was with Governor Sisolak two days ago in his state of Nevada. The reason why is we had a fire that was on federal property. Fifty-seven percent of the forest property in California is federal, just three percent under California jurisdiction. Three percent. Fifty-seven percent under U.S. Forest Service. U.S. Forest Service is spectacular. We have deep admiration and respect, but there’s a culture that, too often, is, “Wait and see.” We can’t afford that any longer. This was a federal fire. They waited. And what we saw is the fire took off because we didn’t put enough initial assets.

Greg was making an oblique point here. I want to be a little bit more explicit: We need your help to change the culture, in terms of the suppression strategies, in this climate, literally and figuratively, to be more aggressive on these federal fires.

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 — that’s why we’re doing this. I want to find out what — 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 — with all the points you just raised, and I — 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. Am I correct?

(Press is ushered out.)

12:34 P.M. EDT

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