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Biden pledges wildfire aid to Western governors

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced help for Nevada and other Western states grappling with a severe drought and wildfires that have exceeded the number from last year’s season.

Biden told Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak and other Western governors, Cabinet members and federal officials that he would raise federal firefighters’ pay, increase aviation assets, provide early detection with satellites, and train National Guard troops to combat wildfires.

“We need to act, and act fast,” Biden said from Washington to eight Western states governors who virtually participated in the meeting. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee did not take part due to a previously scheduled state event.

Biden told the governors 36 uncontained wildfires are burning, more than the 21 that took place at this time last year. He said 9,000 federal firefighters were deployed “across the region from California and New Mexico to Utah and Nevada.”

“And it’s only June,” the president said.

Sisolak said Nevada would work with the federal government and neighboring states to develop wildfire initiatives.

“The state of Nevada remains committed to taking immediate action in order to protect our communities, improve emergency preparedness, and address this growing threat,” Sisolak said in a statement on Twitter.

Nevada fires ‘up significantly’

So far this year, there have been 216 wildfires in Nevada, 90 percent caused by humans, said Kacey KC, the state forester fire warden for the Nevada Division of Forestry.

“It’s up significantly,” KC said of the rate.

Biden said he is deploying his Cabinet secretaries to work with state and local officials, and he would confer with Congress to raise the hourly wage of federal firefighters to $15, and provide permanent rather than seasonal 10 percent retention bonuses.

The president said he was shocked to learn that some federal firefighters earn less than $13 an hour.

“They deserve to be paid, and paid a good wage,” Biden said.

In addition, the president said he would increase training for National Guard personnel to boost manpower to fight fires, and ramp up aviation capabilities to help contain the wildfires when detected.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will use satellite capabilities for early detection of wildfires and provide for faster response to the deadly blazes that have ravaged communities in the West.

Biden said he has proposed $30 billion for firefighting programs in his budget for fiscal year 2022, which begins Oct. 1.

All of the proposals would help Nevada, said KC, who noted the regional scope of wildfires this year is taxing resources.

KC said we are “seeing shortages of apparatus and people.”

Drought making it worse

The president and Vice President Kamala Harris noted that this year’s wildfire season is exacerbated by a severe drought that has lowered water levels in reservoirs, such as Lake Mead, and produced drier conditions in forests and on public lands.

While there remains public debate over the cause of global warming, Biden said there is no scientific doubt that extreme weather events are the result of a change in climate.

“There is climate change,” Biden said.

The discussion between Biden and state leaders comes during the Western Governors Association meeting, which is being held virtually on Wednesday and Thursday.

Association Chair Kate Brown of Oregon thanked the president and his administration for acting quickly to recognize and offer help to western states experiencing extreme heat, drought and wildfires.

She applauded efforts to train the National Guard before the wildfire season began, and grant programs that have offered cities federal assistance to prepare for what is expected to be a brutal summer.

Brown also asked if states in the West could eventually be approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for wildfire mitigation, similar to aid available for Gulf and East Coast states for hurricane preparation.

The Biden administration already has deployed FEMA to help states and communities that have been impacted by wildfires.

Looking forward, KC also echoed remarks from Brown that collaborative efforts between states and federal governments are needed to prevent wildfire risk with controlled burns and the removal of dead trees and underbrush.

Nevada is working with federal agencies, tribal governments and communities to reduce wildfire risks, KC said.

Contract Gary Martin at gmartin@reviewjournal.com. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.

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