Jun 30, 2021
Joe Biden Wildfire Prevention & Response Briefing Transcript
President Joe Biden & Vice President Kamala Harris held a briefing with governors on wildfire prevention and response on June 30, 2021. Read the transcript of the event here.
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President Joe Biden: (00:44)
… proud of our cabinet and they’re all here today. They all want to be engaged. They all want to help. So hopefully we’re going to get into some exchanges going down the line here. I want to thank you all again for being in this support meeting. So thank you, thank you, thank you. And Governor Newsom, are you trying to make us feel bad in that magnificent background you have over there, when I’m sitting in here in the White House? God love you. Anyway, it’s good to see you all. Really thank you.
President Joe Biden: (01:15)
For years, the president has received a briefing at the beginning of the hurricane season, looking at the trends that are coming to get a sense of what’s coming so that the country can be better prepared. And when I received that briefing this year, I asked for a second briefing that does the same thing, but now we’re doing it about wildfire season. We know this is becoming a regular cycle and we know it’s getting worse. In fact, the threat of western wildfires this year is as severe as it’s ever been. And I wanted to convene this group of western state governors, key members of my cabinet, FEMA leadership and the leadership from utility industries and senior members of our White House team to make sure we’re doing everything, and I mean, this sincerely, we’re doing everything possible to help you prepare for what’s coming. And some is already there.
President Joe Biden: (02:12)
The truth is we’re playing catch up. This is an area that has been under-resourced, but that’s going to change if we have anything to do with it. We can’t cut corners when it comes to managing our wildfires or supporting our firefighters, and this briefing is going to be an annual event to make sure we’re focusing on preventing the fire threats in the first place, as well as responding when they arise. But right now we have to act and act fast. We’re late in the game here. We’re remembering the horrific scenes from last year, orange skies that looked like end of days, smoke and ash that made the air dangerous to breathe, more than 10 million acres burned, billions of dollars in economic damage, families that lost their homes and everything they own, and too many lost lives. And this year could be even tougher based on the weather patterns.
President Joe Biden: (03:07)
California and some other places, the drought conditions are twice what they were last year. Right now we’re seeing record heat in Portland and across the west. And this year, 21 large noncontained fires are burning. This year, there are 36 that are noncontained and burning. There are already about 9,000 firefighters deployed across the region from California to New Mexico to Utah and Nevada, and it’s only June. I realize I’m preaching to the choir here. I know you all know this better than any other people in the country. Fire season traditionally lasts through October. Well with climate change, climate change is driving the dangerous confluence of extreme heat and prolonged drought. We’re seeing wildfires of greater intensity that move with more speed and last well beyond the traditional months in the fire season. And that’s a problem for all of us.
President Joe Biden: (04:08)
Wildfires are not a partisan phenomenon. They don’t stop at a county or a state line, or a country line for that matter. We need a coordinated, comprehensive response with all the federal government working in close cooperation to support you, the states. That’s what this is about. We want to know what you, the states, the localities and tribal governments, and those on the front lines are facing in this danger and what you think would help the most. Today, we’re taking critical steps to help protect American communities right away.
President Joe Biden: (04:42)
First, we’re going to make sure that we have enough firefighters on call, who are trained, equipped, and ready to respond for all this fire season, and we’re going to pay them. I mean, the idea these folks are running into … Anyway, we should pay them. Last week, I learned that some of our federal firefighters are being paid less than $13 an hour. Come on, man. That’s unacceptable to me, and I immediately to my team to take decisive action to fix it. So today we’re announcing what I still think is not enough. This year, we’re going to provide retention incentives that’s going to ensure federal wild land fires firefighters are making at least $15 an hour and provide for additional 10% bonuses for those working on the front lines.
President Joe Biden: (05:33)
But a one-time boost is not enough. These courageous women and men take an incredible risk of running toward a fire and they deserve to be paid and paid good wages. You know that old expression, God made man, then he made a few firefighters? Well, it’s true. They’re incredible. I’ve spent a lot of time my whole career with them. So we’re going to work with Congress. I know many of your senators or representatives have been working hard on this to permanently get federal firefighters a better deal, including improvements in their compensation, their benefits and their work-life balance.
President Joe Biden: (06:11)
The federal government is also offering funding, when governors request it, to train and equip National Guard members, so they’re ready to provide a surge of firefighting capacity. One of the things I learned over the years, being so deeply involved with the firefighters, the only thing that saves a firefighter’s life is another firefighter. That’s the single most consequential thing. And one of the hardest speeches I’ve ever had to make, and we’ve all made difficult speeches, was at the funeral of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters when the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department got clobbered. That tragedy happened eight years ago today. That’s the reason I mention it. It’s hard to remember, of all the costs that firefighters risk when they do their job and their bravery to step up and do the job.
President Joe Biden: (07:03)
Now, traditionally federal firefighting has been a seasonal job, but because of climate change, and I know you all know it, I hope your constituents know it, there is climate change, it’s no longer a seasonal job. This is a year-round mission. So we’ve made sure seasonal firefighters can stay on the job as long as they’re needed this year, by allowing them to work beyond their term. And for next year, we’re working to make more than those positions, permanent positions, so that when fires aren’t burning, we have a workforce of experienced hands enhancing our forest management, reducing the risk of future fire in the future fire season.
President Joe Biden: (07:44)
Second thing, we are harnessing new tools and technologies to better identify and respond before new fires grow into large uncontrolled conflagrations. So for example, the National Oceanic and-
President Joe Biden: (08:02)
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, has satellite technology that is able to see from space when new fires start while they’re still small, even as small as the size of your dining room table. Similarly, the Department of Energy has a sensor array, computer analysis capability that can detect in real time the lightning strikes that might set off a blaze, and we’re going to use those tools to identify fires that start in remote places and share the information so the firefighters in the ground can respond immediately before fires spread out of control. I know that’s not a full answer, but it’s real. It will improve things. We’re also going to make sure that the people have the information to better protect themselves and their families from smoke and fire risks. This will include launching a new app from EPA.
President Joe Biden: (08:58)
So individuals can easily access the latest information on air quality, smoke plumes, and public health guidance. Third, we also have to make investments in our future. That’s why the bi-partisan infrastructure framework investment of about $50 billion in the so-called, anyway, I won’t go into it, but a bill that’s caused a little attention. Infrastructure is going to build resilience to extreme weather events like wildfires, $50 billion. And today I’m announcing a $37 million federal grant to Sonoma County, California in support of fire mitigation efforts are under way. This grant is part of FEMA’s brick program, building resilient infrastructure and communities. My administration, double brick funding to support local efforts to strengthen the resilience. And because Sonoma knows all too well the devastation brought by fires, they were the first to apply for the mitigation funding. I encourage more communities to do so next year.
President Joe Biden: (10:04)
And finally, I want to note that the extreme heat we’re seeing in the west is not only a risk amplifier for wildfires, it’s a threat in and of itself. People are hurting. It’s more dangerous for kids to play outside. Roads are buckling under the heat. Again, I need not tell all of you. We need people to check on their neighbors, especially seniors who may need a helping hand. Outdoor laborers, like our farmer construction workers are going to need frequent water breaks and shade. I want to thank the governors and local leaders providing information to citizens and the resources like cooling centers, where people can go to get relief from the heat. And to our utility leaders, we are ready to work with you to make sure that people have access to power, including air conditioning under these extreme demand conditions while continuing to advance our climate goals. Now, I’m eager to hear from each of you, each of the governors as to what the experience has been in your state and what we can do better to be helpful, because this is an area where investing in prevention and preparation today is going to deliver invaluable returns tomorrow. And the federal government is going to have your backs. And that’s my intention. I’ll close by just saying thank you to everyone from the forest service to the Department of Interior and Agriculture, to FEMA, state, local and tribal partners. And most importantly, our firefighters for all your incredible work. We’ve asked so much of the firefighters already. And I know you’re going to continue to step up. I’m going to ask the vice president Harris to say a few words, and then we’ll move on. Madam vice president.
VP Kamala Harris: (11:49)
Thank you Mr. President. First, I just want to thank the President for prioritizing this for his administration. This is a personal issue for me as a daughter of California. And I say hello to my governor, Gavin Newsom. I grew up with drought warnings. My brother-in-law is a California firefighter. As a Senator, I have visited the scene while the embers were still smoldering of the fires. Paradise, for example, California. And when I arrived there, a whole community had been wiped out by the fire. The families still hadn’t been let back in, but the only thing standing in that community were the chimneys, which looked in that scene like tombstones. The firefighters that were there pointed out to me, if you look at the driveway, it may be a tragic situation if the cars are still in the driveway, because that means the folks didn’t get out in time.
VP Kamala Harris: (12:56)
We have so much work to do on this. My home, our family home was under an evacuation order in Los Angeles. So I’ve been in that experience of also saying, look, the most things we can grab that are the most valuable are family photographs. Everything else doesn’t matter. So when I think about the challenges that we face as a nation, I know they are real. I also know that we’re in a different climate as the President said on every level than we were even 10 years ago. And there’s a lot of work to do. And part of the leadership of this administration has been to also recognize that the federal government’s role in this regard has to be more than just putting out fires. It needs to be obviously supporting our firefighters, especially at the federal level who are not getting paid enough, but it’s also about investing in resilience.
VP Kamala Harris: (13:45)
It’s about investing in adaptation, diversifying water policy in a way we are thinking about the storage of water, both above ground and underground. We’re thinking about recycling. And all that we know is available to us to actually be smarter in terms of the conservation of this diminishing and valuable resource called water. So I want to thank everyone for your leadership because you all are giving people a sense of confidence while you are trying to bring limited resources to what needs to be addressed in this growing threat of these wildfires. And the bottom line is that as the President has said, his bipartisan framework for infrastructure, it’s going to address a lot of these challenges, but there is other work to be done. And so I look forward to staying in touch with all of you. And again, thank you for your leadership.
President Joe Biden: (14:36)
Well, thank you. Governor Brown, if you’d be willing, you could give us an overview of what the challenges are you Western governors are facing and what you think we should be doing and can do to help. The floor is yours.
Governor Kate Brown: (14:55)
Thank you so much, Mr. President and Madam Vice President for having us here for this incredibly important conversation. As you well know, we Western governors, our states are truly on the front lines when it comes to drought fires and our rapidly changing climate. We were talking earlier, before you got on, just this weekend, my state of Oregon experienced three consecutive days of record breaking high temperatures across the Willamette Valley, reaching upwards of 117 degrees. It is unprecedented, and unfortunately, it follows one of the most devastating wildfires seasons in our state’s history. Last year, we had more than 2000 fires that burned over a million acres. Entire communities were literally wiped off the map in minutes. We lost nine lives, more than 4,000 homes, and nearly 2000 other structures. As you well know the impact on our communities and our local economies.
Governor Kate Brown: (16:02)
… know the impact on our communities and our local economies will last for years to come. Oregonians have been through a lot in the last 18 months. We’ve had four federal disaster declarations in my state since April of 2020. But what last year’s fire season underscored is that most often, those who can least afford the impacts are hurt the most. Our communities of color, our rural and low-income communities were disproportionately impacted. Our disaster preparedness and recovery services must be available to everyone, regardless of the language that they speak, the color of their skin, their economic situation, whether they own a home or not, or their immigration status. Everyone impacted by a disaster should be eligible for FEMA assistance, including our undocumented families. It’s absolutely the right thing to do.
Governor Kate Brown: (16:58)
Our local communities are increasingly challenged to respond on their own to the disasters of the scales we are seeing. We’ve been preparing for this year’s fire season by investing millions of dollars, shoring up additional resources and staffing at our office of emergency management so they then can support our local and our tribal partners. However, Mr. President, Madam Vice President, we still have a number of concerns and it includes whether there will be available wildfire and non-fire federal resources.
Governor Kate Brown: (17:31)
We know as we’re entering this wildfire season, our Eastern counterparts are preparing for a very difficult hurricane season. And so we may not be able to rely on other regions to help out this year. With that in mind, I do want to say thank you for approving our cost share adjustment related to our 2020 Labor Day wildfires at 100% for Oregon, treating this the same as COVID- 19 and the same as what happened in Louisiana for their hurricane recovery efforts. I would also ask that federal individual assistance be approved for disaster mitigation activities for wildfire, just as FEMA recently approved for hurricanes.
Governor Kate Brown: (18:19)
And then finally, and I just have to say gratefully, our Good Neighbor Authority, we have partnered with the federal government over the years to reduce wildfire risk on federal lands, through collaborative processes, including prescribed burns, removing dead trees and underbrush. With the recent passage of our state legislation, we have an opportunity to fund even more of these Good Neighbor Authority projects together. It’s a win-win-win. It creates jobs, creates healthy landscapes and reduces wildfire risk, and we have the dollars to invest now. So we look forward to partnering with you, and we are incredibly grateful, Mr. President, for your leadership. Back over to you.
President Joe Biden: (19:09)
Well, Madame Governor, I’m not being solicitous when I say we’re grateful for your leadership. I really mean it. And one of the things that I’d like to ask before we move on is what would you be looking for us to do at the federal level to strengthen this agreement, to build off the lessons of the good neighbor agreement? And is there anything in particular that you’ve learned from last season that would add to the needs of this season?
Governor Kate Brown: (19:46)
Well, you mentioned it in your remarks, Mr. President, making sure we have resources to train our National Guards men and women prior to fire season has been extremely helpful the last two fire seasons. This should be universal practice nationwide. It’s incredibly helpful. We have relied on our national guard every step of the way throughout the pandemic, and we certainly rely on them in support activities in firefighting.
Governor Kate Brown: (20:16)
The other piece, and I see a Chief Christianson there in terms of the Good Neighbor Authority, this has been extraordinary in our ability to put people back to work in our timber dependent rural communities, in our ability to create healthy landscapes, in our ability to provide timber for the mills, and frankly, our ability to reduce wildfire risk. And so more resources to collaborate and provide what you described as comprehensive collective efforts to reduce wildfire risk would be extremely helpful.
President Joe Biden: (20:55)
Well, not at this moment, but we ought to get, no pun intended, deeply in the weeds as to specifically what can be done. And I’d ask my appropriate cabinet members to be working with your people as to what we can do along those lines, because it seems to be self-evident that that makes a lot of sense. But we have a lot of other things to cover here, but look to Dr. Sherwood. Are we moving…
Dr. Sherwood: (21:25)
We’re going to move shortly. If you want to ask any further questions of governors or we can move with the press departing and we’ll continue our discussion.
President Joe Biden: (21:31)
Let me ask the Vice President if she has any questions, and/or any cabinet member if they have any questions for the governor.
VP Kamala Harris: (21:38)
What I’m interested, it’s really a follow up to what the President asked, with each consecutive wildfire season, and they are growing in terms of the enormity, what are we learning and how can the federal government address the challenges and the gaps that you have seen with each fire season in terms of the resources, but also the approach? And for example, including the public education piece, including the piece that is about encouraging the private sector, where appropriate, to be engaged around resilience and adaptation? On the issue of water policy, what kind of resources do you need that are also preventative as well as reactive to the wildfires themselves?
Governor Kate Brown: (22:28)
Governor Newsom, do you want to pick that one up?
Governor Gavin Newsom: (22:32)
Yeah. At first, if I just may, a little indulgence. Thank you, Madame Governor and Madame Vice President. Mr. President, I’ve been waiting almost four and a half years to hear a president say what you just said. It’s profoundly important, every word you spoke. And I mean it. Look, it goes without saying in California, we were engaged in a relationship with the federal government, vis-a-vis the Vice-President’s question, that was more like sparring partners, not working partners. So we have an opportunity here to turn the page on the finger pointing and the rhetoric. We were debating raking policies, literally debating raking policies in this country in the last few years. But our eyes are wide open.
Governor Gavin Newsom: (23:15)
By the way, I’m here in your forest, our forest, federal forest, in Klamath in Siskiyou County, two of the largest wildfires that we’ve had year to date in this region. We were up here yesterday. Thank you, Mr. President. I didn’t have to make a call to you to get the F mag approved yesterday up here in Siskiyou County for the largest of the wildfires, the lava fire, which is a few miles away from me. But look, the hots are getting hotter. The dries are getting dryer. The smash mouth realities of climate change are here and they’re here decades ahead of when we had anticipated. So across the board, across the board, we have to disabuse ourselves of the old timelines and the old frames of engagement. The seriousness of this cannot be underscored. We had, last year, a heat dome over the West coast of the United States, not dissimilar one we’re experiencing-
Governor Gavin Newsom: (24:03)
… Here, a heat dome over the west coast of the United States, not just similar one. We’re experiencing north of where I am and Governor Brown and Inslee experienced most acutely. But that led to 12,000 lightning strikes in 24 hours and five of the most destructive wildfires, five of the six largest in our history concurrently in last year’s wildfire season. We were burning up. We were choking up. We haven’t just heated. And I should just say this with due respect to those that don’t believe in science, you got to believe your own damn eyes. Observe the evidence. When you look at that thermometer, 117, 118 degrees up north. We were 123 down in Palm Springs two days ago. 111 just 48 hours ago. There is no Republican thermometer, no Democratic thermometer. These realities are here with us today.
Governor Gavin Newsom: (24:48)
So, Madame Vice President, across the board, we can’t just double down. That’s old, stale rhetoric. We have to have a sense of intentionality and responsibility to radically change our vegetation, forest management policies, our suppression policies, our positioning policies, the strategies we’re engaging. The president just laid out on technology strategies and opportunities to develop partnerships, not only with interior and not only with FEMA, but with the Department of Defense, some of those new satellite technologies that have been around, but opportunities to engage in new partnerships with the satellite technologies. The mutual aid system has been stretched in this country. Governor Brown, how many times I called you last year for resources. Inslee, Sisolak, Polis, all you on here, thank you. But we’re stretched. We were calling folks in Australia. We were calling folks in Canada. We had the pleasure of having folks, firefighters from Israel come because we were that stressed.
Governor Gavin Newsom: (25:41)
So, Mr. President, just in closing, forgive me for being long-winded. I just want to say this, music to my ears. We got to pay our firefighters better and more because we don’t have enough firefighters. Period. Full stop. Bureau of Land Management, same thing. We need to really invest in our human resources and the infrastructure that you have been preaching over the course last few weeks, because this is also an incredible economic opportunity to completely transform our economy and to get off of carbon or at least driving with a carbon free engine and to change the way we produce and consume energy.
Governor Gavin Newsom: (26:15)
And so, I just want to applaud you, final words, for recognizing not only this moment of urgency situationally, but the sustainable mindset to start thinking anew about how we can reimagine the future, not go back to the 19th century, but truly dominate the future. And your infrastructure program is a big part of that as well. These things are connected. And I just want to say, we respect and appreciate your leadership. And we’re just grateful and humbled that you took the time today to be with all of us.
President Joe Biden: (26:45)
Well, look, Gavin, I’m not doing anybody any favor. I just think, if I were sitting in your seat or Governor Brown’s seat, I mean, this is urgent. And one of the things that I have found since becoming president is how often I’m required to call in the National Guard, the National Guard. I spent yesterday, that’s not true, two days ago, meeting with our military. What they’ve done is just astounding. I just met with a general who had coordinated probably the largest logistical effort in American history, getting all these COVID vaccines out. I mean, think about how we’re relying on the military in ways we never ever, ever anticipated. And now, I got my briefing at NOAA on what was going on in hurricane season. And we’re looking for the National Guard there too.
President Joe Biden: (27:58)
And so, we just have to think differently, like you all have been talking about. And I promise you when we get down to the nitty gritty, and a lot of this we’re already getting down there, you got to tell us what you need and we can debate it. We can discuss it. And I think this is, now that overused expression, a wake up call to the rest of the public who all of a sudden is saying… I’ve had people say to me when I’ve been on the road the last month, less than that, probably the last three weeks. “Oh my God. I didn’t think things would really change that much. I saw those photographs of the reservoirs in California. Oh my God. Really? There’s no water?”
Speaker 1: (28:41)
President Joe Biden: (28:42)
Or people saying, “117 degrees in Portland?” So, I think this is both… the old expression, we’ve got to make lemonade out of lemons here. We have a chance to do something that not only deals with the problem today, but allows us to be in a position to move forward, to make and create real good jobs, by the way, generate economic growth on all the process. So, thank you. But I can see Dr. Sherwood is looking like, “Wrap it up, Biden,” here. But-
Speaker 1: (29:21)
President Joe Biden: (29:22)