Traveling through the drought-stricken West Monday, President Biden used his bully pulpit to sound the alarm about climate change and accompanying extreme weather events and worsening wildfires.
In Boise, Idaho, Biden huddled with state and federal leaders at the National Interagency Fire Center, where the country’s wildland fire apparatus is run and which has been operating at its highest level of deployment for an extraordinary two months this summer.
“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 are not going to go back,” Biden said during the briefing.
The first president to officially visit the federal fire center, Biden also met briefly with first responders and an elite hot shot crew, where he reiterated calls to boost firefighter pay. The administration did recently implement bonuses for federal wildland firefighters but Biden said many still make only $15.00 an hour and put their lives on the line.
“You saved Lake Tahoe,” Biden said, referring to the massive Caldor Fire still burning out of control in California and Nevada.
The president’s tour, including a flyover of the Caldor Fire, comes as Congress is trying to finalize the details on a top legislative priority for the administration — a $3.5 trillion infrastructure and climate change resiliency bill backed by Democrats. During stops in Idaho and California Monday, and Colorado Tuesday, Biden planned to make the pitch that the bill shouldn’t just be about replacing old systems, but rather upgrades that make communities like those in the West more resilient to withstand extreme weather.
“We can’t continue to ignore the reality,” Biden said.
In Boise, Biden recounted how western wildfires this year alone have scorched an area larger than New Jersey. More than 43,000 ignitions have burned some 5.4 million acres of land, slightly higher than all of last year which saw one of the more destructive seasons on record.
Idaho and neighboring Oregon are also among a handful of western states reporting their hottest summers on record.
“This summer we’re getting clarity on the question of how bad climate change can get,” said Larry O’Neill, the state climatologist for Oregon.
Much of the Northwest has also been choked with dense, hazardous smoke for weeks this summer, leading to more calls for an overhaul of U.S. firefighting policy. On the ground in the West, there is also pressure on the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies to be more aggressive with restoration projects in overgrown forests where natural wildfires have been suppressed for a century.
“Since the early 1900s the policy has been to fight fires, the seasons are getting longer, it’s putting more demands on those people who are required to fight the fires,” said Boise resident Marshall Brezonick, on a recent smoke shrouded hike on a popular trail in the foothills outside the city. “It’s getting worse with climate change.”