Remarks by President Biden in Briefing with Federal and State Fire Agency Officials
12:08 P.M. MDT
MR. BEEBE: Mr. President, on behalf of the wildland fire community, I’m proud to welcome you to the National Interagency Fire Center — or NIFC, for short. And we always say NIFC is a place, not an organization.
THE PRESIDENT: (Laughs.)
MR. BEEBE: We’re incredibly proud of it.
Thank you for coming. We’re honored you’re the first President to visit in the 50-year history of the Fire Center, and it’s quite an honor.
I’m Grant Beebe. I’m the Bureau of Land Management’s Assistant Director for Fire and Aviation. And speaking for all the NIFC partners, I’d like to thank you particularly for being here and for your genuine and intense interest in wildland fire management.
I just want to point out: This is a coalition of partners. We have a team here. We have National Park Service, DOD, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Association of State Foresters representing the states, FEMA, U.S. Fire Administration, and, of course, U.S. Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service.
I think I got them all; somebody will correct me. Oh, and of course, National Weather Service — one of the original partners here at NIFC. The inception of this was a Forest Service, BLM, NOAA, Fish and Wi- — National Weather Service operation.
So, we’re incredibly proud of it. We’re so proud to have you here.
NIFC was created 50 years ago, and it is the original and durable model for interagency, intergovernmental coordination. Extremely lengthy, intense, and damaging fire seasons like the one we’re experiencing now reinforce the purpose of places like this.
Through the hard work, ingenuity, and persistence of generations of fire professionals, wildfire response across the nation is unified, cooperative, and professional. And I’ll say that we all stand on the shoulders of giants. We inherited this place, and we’re trying to keep it going.
In wildland fire, there’s no one community, agency, Tribal organization that has enough resources to manage all of its fires. Fires don’t know jurisdictional boundaries, and we try to ignore jurisdictional boundaries ourselves. One of our speakers will speak to that particularly.
But the kind of fires we’re experiencing these days — the kind of long-duration, massive, destructive fires we’ve witnessed in recent years in places like California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and, unfortunately, for Governor Otter [sic] this year, in Idaho — they’re teaching us that we need to maybe change the way we’re doing business.
At NIFC and at innumerable regional and local fire coordination centers, the nation’s wildland fire managers join forces, and we direct local, state, Tribal, federal firefighting resources to protect lives and livelihoods, property, infrastructure, and vulnerable natural resources.
Ultimately, we all count on help from our partners when crisis strikes. In years like this, it takes the entire national wildland fire response apparatus — from local, rural fire departments; Rangeland Fire Protection Associations; professional state, county, federal firefighters; military partners — thank goodness for our military partners this year; international assistance — to manage fires across our landscape.
I’ll say people of my age tend to measure fire history in terms of fire seasons, and many of us who are a little longer in the tooth think about the Yellowstone fires of 1988, of course, and what a calamitous fire season that was and we were sure that was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.
THE PRESIDENT: Yep.
MR. BEEBE: I’ll just point out that Yellowstone burned about 800,000 acres in the park. And this year, the Dixie fire, as you know, is approaching about a million acres itself.
California is setting records for the largest fires in history. Colorado set and then reset records for largest fires in history. So, we’re entering into a different environment in fire, and we’re starting to think about how we need to change our tactics. And we’ll talk about that a little bit more.
So, I’ll say, finally, that another complex, costly, and critical wildland fire year underscores the nation’s need to recommit resources to fire prevention, preparedness, and response. And, frankly, we’re honored that you’re here and that you have made that measure one of your own.
I’d like to pass it on to Governor Little now. I know he’d like to introduce you — or to welcome you to Idaho.
GOVERNOR LITTLE: Thank you, Grant.
Mr. President, thank you for being here. Grant really put his arms around the all-hands-on-deck in this facility. And all these people that work here is — are a result of years of seeing what didn’t work in collaboration and what does. And they just get better at it every year.
I want to talk a little bit about what we talked — when you hosted the call with the Western governors — about two things.
One of them: Thank you for asking these men and women in our firefighting to get on the fires early, given the incredible drought that we have in the West, so that we didn’t have those fires we needed to worry about, along with the ones we had going.
But second: what we can all do as partners — the federal partners — to build a more resilient range and forest ecosystem.
There’s been a lot of great work done by your agencies to — whether it’s shared stewardship or good neighbor. But we know about a third of the forests are at risk of big, catastrophic fires, and we got a lot of work to do.
And besides your — you directing the Forest Service and the BLM, the Department of Justice has a role because, so many times, we’ll do a lot of great work, and then it’ll get hung up in court for sometimes very minor reasons.
If you can help us do that, to where we can continue to get these fully agreed-upon plans implemented so that we are not endangering these firefighters when we put them out there because we’ve got forests or — or even rangeland conditions where the fuels are just almost impossible to fight, it would be very appreciated. And all the Western governors stand ready to work with you and your administration on it.
And again, thank you for coming to Boise.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, Gov, thank you. I have enjoyed working with the Western governors.
I — folks, you know — the press has heard me say this before in a different context — but my colleagues used to always kid me when I was in the Senate; I’m always quoting Irish poets about — when I thought it was appropriate. And — and I think they thought I was doing it because I was Irish, but I did it because they’re the best poets. But — (laughter).
All kidding aside, there’s a line from a famous poem. And I think — I didn’t think of it, Grant, until you just were speaking. And it goes like this: It says, “All is changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born.” “A Terrible beauty has been born.”
From the Yellowstone fire to today, all has changed in a drastic, drastic way. I need not tell Robyn, who — National Weather Service — it’s changed, and it’s not going back. It’s not going back. And we and Western Governors, we’ve talked about this. And — and, you know, there’s an expression I say all the firefighters here that God made man and then he made a few firefighters.
You all are the most incredible people. Now, I’m not being — it’s not hyperbole. I started my career with the firefighters as a 29-year-old kid running for the United States Senate, and we’ve never left one another. And I see the Hotshots out there. I don’t want to do any more mass memorial services of the 19 Hotshots that I did back in Arizona.
And the only thing that keeps you all safe is one another. Firefighters have as many injuries and lose as many people as police officers do. But the only thing that really matters is if there’s enough firefighters — firefighters protecting firefighters. That’s the big deal. That’s what it all comes down to.
And I just want you to know that you have the full support of my government — my administration, I should say — and all those who have major roles in the government, from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Interior — just across the board.
And so — and I want to acknowledge Senators Risch and Crapo can’t be here. And Senator Wyden and Markley [sic] were going to come — or, excuse me, Merkley — were going to come from Oregon. We got a call while in flight: The weather is so bad they can’t make it here.
And so I just want to thank them for the incredible work they do as well, because this one of the areas where we do have some overwhelming bipartisan support.
And here at the National Interagency Fire Center, the hub that’s designed to coordinate the resources to fight wildfires, I’m here to hear what’s on your mind and what more that I should be doing, my administration be doing to try to help.
You know, folks, you know the time of the year when the air fills with smoke and the sky turns a little orange, but that time of year is getting earlier every year. And, you know, last week, the air in Boise was thick with smoke from California and from Oregon. And, you know, this year, as you’ve pointed out, Grant, you know, 44,000 wildfires; 5.4 million acres burned. That’s larger than the entire state of New Jersey.
When I say that back East — they’re used to floods and storms. When I say that back East, they — it’s just unfathomable. First of all, they don’t fully understand how big the West is, but more acreage is burned than the entire state of New Jersey, which is a big state.
And, you know, California: 2.2 million acres this year — already this year. The Dixie fire — a million acres. The Caldor fire — 200,000 acres, 1,000 structures. And God knows how many lives risked or lost trying to deal with it.
You know, you’ve saved many communities — the firefighters — and you saved South Lake Tahoe. And what people are beginning to realize is you risk your lives to do it. And thank God — thank God we have you.
But, you know, fires and frequency and ferocity of these fires — I have — I’m having a lot of international meetings with our colleagues around the world. They’re asking. They’re asking. Australia — really worried. Australia (inaudible) but are trying to figure it out. Canada. I mean, just go around the world.
And so, folks, look: The fact is that we’re in a situation where too many memorials are — have been held. And I’ve directed my administration to provide for pay bonuses and incentives to ensure every federal firefighter — because that’s the only authority I have — makes at least $15 an hour. I mean, they should make a hell of a lot — heck of a lot more, but at least $15 an hour. And I’m committing to work with Congress to raise the pay
gap [cap] for federal wildland firefighters.
FEMA: 33 fire management assistant grants to help states pay for the cost of firefighting. And it’s still not enough. The costs are enormous, you have.
And so, you know, believe it or not, there’s massive shortage of fire hoses. I think you all get it. But the idea that we went into this fire season with a shortage of fire hoses — that’s all I heard from my guys back East and in the Midwest: no fire hoses.
Well, fortunately, they thought a long time ago about a thing called the National Defense Act. And what I was able to do — excuse me, the Defense Production Act.
And I was able to restart production of bringing — bringing a lot of people back to work, delivering 21,920 new
feet of fire hose[s] in the frontlines, putting a company back to work that was out of business that stopped — stopped manufacturing.
You know — and the major is here; he knows about this. While we were — we have a commitment at the Department of Defense to defend home, as well as abroad, and that includes the fire service.
We’re now have — we have C-130s for fire suppression, RC-26 aircraft to provide critical fire imagery. And they’re based in California. They’ve flown over 1,000 missions so far — 250 active-duty troops — and I’ve gotten no pushback from the Department of Defense in this at all — none — to the Dixie fire in California. And sharing satellite imagery that we have available to us to help monitor growth of fires.
I’ve directed the EPA to use this new technology we have to deliver smoke and fire and air quality information directly to people’s iPhones. We’ll be able to do that very shortly. It may have already begun in some places.
And — but one of the things we have to do is we have to build back better than what happened before all this began to come apart. And so, we have a proposal — and, by the way, both my Republican colleagues in this state and the Democratic colleagues from — from Oregon, who were going to try to be here, all — we all support this bill I put together on infrastructure so when we build back, we can build back better than it was before.
And it — it cre- — it literally provides for billions of dollars for wildfire prepare — wildfire preparedness, resilience and response, forest management, and public water sources — public water sources.
What people back East don’t quite get is that, were it not for the fact we made significant investments years ago in everything from the Hoover Dam to a whole range of other things out here, a lot of people south of you wouldn’t have any water, and how valuable and serious access to that water is across the board.
And, you know, we need to — we have $14 billion for disaster needs, including $9 billion for communities hit with wildfire and drought. We got to pass it. We got to get it done. And it’s gone through both houses.
But that’s going to — I hope, Governor — be of significant help to you, because states can’t burden it, especially smaller states; you’re a big state. But I mean smaller states, in terms of population, can’t carry this on their back.
And so, you know, this is a — we’re — we’re one America. You know, we have a federal system because each part of the country is supposed to make up for the other count- — parts of the country didn’t have.
And so, you know, we need to do more. We’ve asked for $14 billion for disaster needs, including, as I said, that $9 billion for community — this is over a 10-year period — for — hit by wildfires and drought.
And, you know, we can’t continue to try to ignore reality. Barack — President Obama used to always kid me. I’d say, “You know, reality has a way of working its way in.” Well, you know, the reality is we have a global warming problem — a serious global warming problem, and it’s consequential.
And what’s going to happen is, things aren’t going to go back to what they were. It’s not like you can build back to what it was before. It’s not going to get any better than it is today. It only can get worse, not better. It’s not like we’re going to not have more problems. But we can do this, in my view.
The scientists have warned us for years: The fail — failure to curb pollution from smokestacks and automobiles and a whole range of other things are going to have a con- — going to take its consequences.
And I learned a long time ago, Gov, that — as a U.S. senator back east, that all the major streams and ponds and lakes — for example, in New York state, they were being polluted, the fish were dying, things were changing. And you know what it was all from? It wasn’t because of what they were doing in upstate New York; it’s because of smokestacks in Chicago — steel plants — because it carries — the wind carries that pollution at a height that doesn’t affect the state of Illinois, or doesn’t affect the state of Indiana, doesn’t affect — but it eventually comes down.
Well, you know, I guess you all — I know you all know it. You know, you have the smoke from the fires in California on the East Coast, and sometimes it’s blocking out the sky. People are not just worried about COVID; they’re worried about whether their kids are going to be breathing.
And so, every dollar we invest in resilience — this is part of my message here, and there’s a lot more I want to hear from you that you think we should be doing and I think we should be doing as well. But for every dollar we invest in resilience that is building back better, we save six dollars down the road in the future. And, you know, you all know the number. Studies show extreme weather cost America last year $99 billion. Extreme weather.
It’s not just fires. I mean, more people died — I just went — I was in Louisiana, Mississippi, and all through the south (inaudible) Hurricane Ida. Well, guess what? More people died in Brooklyn than died in Louisiana. More people. The floodwaters were immense. Never seen anything like it. People were drowning in their homes because there was tornado warnings to go to their basement, and all of a sudden, the flood comes through the windows, up to the ceiling. Can’t get out. People dying.
So, I guess, to state the obvious, you all are incredible in what you’re doing. But I also think about the jobs we’re losing due to the impact of supply chains and industries that are being held up.
I’m looking forward to this briefing. My message to you is: When we build back, we have to build back better. It’s not a Democrat thing, it’s not a Republican thing — it’s a weather thing. It’s a reality. It’s serious.
And we can do this. We can do this, and, in the process of building back, we can create jobs, not lose jobs. We can create jobs.
So, my — you know, I’m going to stop here and turn it back to you, Grant. And thanks for hosting us. And I understand, as a former smokejumper, you’re crazy too. (Laughter.) God love you all.
I grew up in a little town called Claymont, Delaware, and I went to school — I used to tell Frank Church this — I got a — my first job offer, where I wanted — my wife — deceased wife and I wanted to move to Idaho because we think — not a joke — because it’s such a beautiful, beautiful state. And I interviewed for a job with Boise Cascade. And in the meantime, there was a war going on. At any rate —
But the whole point was that I used to always kid Frank. But I grew up with a little steel town called Claymont, Delaware, when Scranton shut down because of coal mining. And I went to a little Catholic grade school called Holy Rosary. And it was on — before I-95, there used to be a thing called the “Philadelphia pike.” And so, my mom would drive me from — we only lived about a mile from school, and the school bus wasn’t around then — and drive me to the parking lot.
And right across the street from the school was a fire station, Claymont Fire — a volunteer fire company, but they’re really good. And so, all the guys who grew up either became cops, firefighters, or priests. I wasn’t qualified for any of them, so I’m here. (Laughter.)
But all kidding aside, you guys and women are incredible. You’re incredible at what you do. I’m not — it’s not hyperbole. If you know anything about me, you know my — my long, long, long, long, long relationship with firefighters.
I mean it from the bottom of my heart. And we owe you more than just our thanks. We owe you what you need to deal with these problems.
I’m sorry to go on so long. Thank you.
I’ll turn it back to you, Grant. And I guess that’s who I’m turning it back to. I don’t know who — anyway, whoever wants to do the talking.
MR. BEEBE: That would be me. Thank you, Mr. President. And you’re right, I was a smokejumper, only because I trained to be a teacher and that was way too difficult and scary, so I did something that was way easier. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: That’s why I left the county council.
MR. BEEBE: There you go.
The National Association of State Foresters is a key partner of ours. George Geissler is representing them today. He’s a state forester from the great state of Washington.
Welcome, George. I know you got a couple things to say, so have at it.
MR. GEISSLER: Yes. Thank you, Grant. And thank you, Mr. President, for this opportunity to give you a little bit of insight as to the role that state and local governments can play in our interagency wildland fire management world.
As Grant said, you know, safe and effective fire management requires the commitment, the cooperation, and the coordination of all of us, all of our partners. State forestry agencies — such as my own Washington Department of Natural Resources, the Florida Forest Service, and California’s Cal Fire — are the primary agencies that are responsible for wildland fire suppression in our states, and we’re partners here at the National Interagency Fire Center with a fire director who sits on NMAC and helps to decide each day the priorities that occur in this nation.
Federal, state, Tribal, and local agencies all benefit from this collaborative effort that helps move national air and ground resources to the areas of greatest threat, while still ensuring all agencies are supported in the firefighting effort.
Within the cooperative structure of the cohesive strategy, and then formalized by our Master Interagency Wildland Fire Management Agreements, states are routinely fighting fire on federal lands alongside the federal agencies, and then they turn around and are helping us on our own fires. Because, as you said, fire knows no boundaries.
Nationwide, state forestry agencies are responsible for wildfire protection on about 1.5 billion acres, and about 1.1 billion of those acres are actually state and privately-owned forestlands.
And so far, this year, of those 44,000 fires that you’ve heard, states have responded to about 33,000 of those. We routinely are at about 75 percent of the numbers of wildfires that occur in this country.
So, states contribute, in addition to that, just hundreds of millions of dollars annually to provide wildland firefighting resources — like, you know, firefighters, engines, heavy equipment, aircraft — and all of this goes into the national effort, along with our federal partners.
And federal funding, such as State Fire Assistance and Volunteer Fire Assistance that we received through the U.S. Forest Service, actually helps to expand on that capacity as well as maintain it. And all of that is really getting it down to that helping the rural volunteer fire departments that we all know are across the U.S.
THE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
MR. GEISSLER: The partnership and all of the cooperation between state and local governments, though, it’s not just for wildfire suppression, like you said. You know, through Good Neighbor Authority, through shared stewardship, we work together with our local governments, with our Tribal partners, and we do all of the critical fuels mitigation work. We do the forest health treatments that are out there. And we’re trying to work, as you said, to improve the resiliency of these landscapes as we go and see the impacts of climate change.
You know, and all of this is really — provides assistance directly to the communities that we have out there. And as you know, wildfires are impacting entire communities in the United States. These annual occurrences place millions of Americans at risk, and they’re no longer limited to just what you see about in the news in the West. They — we have fires — it’s now a “fire year,” and we routinely have fires throughout all 50 states.
But the threat to catastrophic wildfire in America’s wildland-urban interface — it really demands national attention. And it needs to be unified, it needs to be multifaceted, it needs to be — take on prevention, mitigation, response, and recovery.
And it’s just like you see wildland fire suppression being managed at this building; we need that effort to protect our wildland-urban interface.
So, as chair of the National Association of State Foresters Wildland Committee, I really do appreciate you coming and putting this focus on wildland fire suppression and what we can all do together to address this issue that we’re all facing — be it climate change, landscape resiliency, or threats to our communities. We look forward to working with you.
12:35 P.M. MDT