Biden takes steps to bolster federal wildfire response
President Joe Biden has announced steps to increase the federal response to wildfires as he prepared to meet virtually with western governors and federal officials.
The White House announcement on Wednesday, June 30, came the day after Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency related to the imminent threat of wildfire. Oregon experienced 100-degree-plus temperatures over most of the state this past weekend — temperatures remain past that mark east of the Cascades — and 19 of 36 counties are in drought emergencies.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden spoke to reporters Saturday, June 26, anticipating Biden's announcement.
"Fortunately, we now have an administration taking this crisis seriously," Wyden said in a reaction Wednesday. "Westerners can now be assured the administration has an all-of-government strategy securely in place to make sure wildland firefighters, tankers and other wildland firefighting technologies are where they must be to protect lives and property when fires hit."
Brown said much of Oregon is still recovering from the 2020 Labor Day wildfires that swept Oregon west of the Cascades. Some of that activity involves reconstruction of access roads and removal of hazardous trees.
"With wildfires already sparking this year, it is imperative that we act now to prevent further loss — of life, property, business, and our natural resources," she said in her announcement.
"I issued this emergency declaration to ensure every resource is made available for firefighting efforts and to the crews striving to protect our state. With fire seasons increasingly starting earlier and lasting longer, it is up to each of us to do our part to prevent wildfires and be prepared for the ones we can't prevent. I am urging Oregonians to take charge in preventing human-caused fires by being prepared, safe, responsible, and aware."
She has invoked a law that enables the Oregon Department of Forestry and the State Fire Marshal, together with the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, to muster people, equipment and facilities from other state agencies to deal with the emergency.
In Oregon, wildfire responsibilities are divided among local fire protection districts, Oregon Department of Forestry — which also protects western Oregon forest lands overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management — and the U.S. Forest Service for national forests.
Biden, in his announcement Wednesday, specified several steps by his administration:
• Firefighters will earn at least $15 per hour, permanent firefighters are eligible for a short-term retention incentive of up to 10%, and temporary firefighters who last the 2021 season are eligible for $1,000 bonuses.
• Temporary firefighters will be allowed to work beyond their seasonal limits, which the Office of Personnel Management has waived.
• The permanent firefighting workforce will be expanded in the Interior Department and the Forest Service, which is part of the Agriculture Department. Some of them will come from the ranks of temporary firefighters.
• The 15,000 federal firefighters will be supported by 13,000 other employees in the two agencies, plus up to 11,000 more outside the agencies, generally retired employees.
• National Guard soldiers will undergo firefighting training. Oregon National Guard soldiers did so last year; they also did tasks such as traffic control to free up firefighters for other work.
• Air support capability will be increased. Between the two agencies, 34 air tankers and 200 helicopters. Through the Defense Department, the National Guard and Air Force Reserve can use aircraft to supply water drops or do medical evacuation.
Biden also said his proposed budget for 2022 includes more than $30 billion for wildfire management. The budget also proposes a 62% increase for the two agencies to remove "hazardous fuels" in selected areas.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley had this statement in response:
"I am deeply appreciative of their courageous efforts, and applaud the Biden administration's decision to give them the raises and bonuses they deserve. Firefighters play a crucial role in protecting our communities from wildfires, and I am fully committed to working alongside the administration to ensure that they are paid a living wage and given the support they need to keep up their great work in the years to come."
Wyden had this statement after the presidential release, which he anticipated:
"The administration is also crystal clear on the human toll of fighting these wildfires and has a plan to improve the conditions, needs, and availability of wildland firefighters. Congress can and should bolster these efforts, and I have legislation to lift the overtime pay cap, create a more permanent firefighting workforce and let wildland firefighters work in the winter months reducing hazardous fuels, so there is less fire risk in the summer.
"The ongoing infrastructure debate in Congress gives us an essential chance to get this and other wildfire prevention efforts, like hazardous fuels management, done. The time to prepare is now."
NOTE: Adds comment by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley.
For a link to the White House press release on wildfire
For a link to Gov. Kate Brown's declaration of a state of emergency due to wildfire threats:
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