‘It’s a tinderbox situation’: Western governors ask Biden for better wildfire prevention

Biden says upcoming infrastructure bill would help Western states like Idaho battle wildfires

By: - July 30, 2021 2:33 pm

In the two decades leading up to 2016, Idaho had more acres burned in wildfires than any other state in the continental U.S., according to an Idaho Statesman analysis of federal wildfire data. (Photo courtesy of Ada County)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden met virtually with governors from Western and Midwestern states on Friday to discuss how federal intervention can best aid states battling wildfires, amid complaints from states about federal forest management.

“We’ve got big, complex wildfires burning across multiple areas,” Biden said. “We’re in for a long fight this year, and the only way to meet those challenges is by working together.” 

There are currently 83 large fires across 13 states that have burned more than 1.7 million acres of land, according to the Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center, a government agency that serves as a support center for wildland fires and other emergency situations. Those states include Idaho, Montana, Washington, Alaska, Oregon, Wyoming, California, Arizona, Nevada, South Dakota, Colorado, Utah and Minnesota. 

The governors in the briefing were Republicans Greg Gianforte of Montana, Brad Little of Idaho and Mark Gordon of Wyoming, and Democrats Tim Walz of Minnesota, Jay Inslee of Washington, Kate Brown of Oregon and Gavin Newsom of California.

During the briefing, Gianforte told Biden that Montana has spent $13 million since July 1 to fight wildfires and local communities have been devastated, according to a pool report. Gianforte told the president that the federal government needed to do a better job of clearing out dead trees.

“It’s a tinderbox situation,” Gianforte said, adding that forests do not have good stewardship.

Biden agreed and added that the upcoming infrastructure bill would help Western states battle wildfires. He said there were also climate change provisions to help prevent many of the fires by clearing dead trees from forests and boosting personnel to help fight the fires. 

“There is a lot of money in here to help you manage the fires,” he said.

Biden also suggested for states and county leaders to continue partnering with FEMA, as the agency approved 20 forest management assistant grants totaling $100 million to help states pay for the cost of fighting fires. 

He added that the administration was also working with FEMA and the Defense Logistics Agency to get ahead of emergency supply chain issues that have been disrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Montana’s Gianforte, Idaho’s Little invited this time

This is the second meeting that Biden has held about wildfires, but several Western governors, including Gianforte, were not invited to the first briefing. In that meeting, Biden met with FEMA officials, his Cabinet members and other state leaders to discuss efforts to better support wildland firefighters.

Gianforte and Little, who was also not invited, wrote Biden a letter expressing their disappointment at not receiving an invitation. 

“While Western states will spend the coming months fighting wildfires alongside federal partners on the ground, it is critical we have a federal partner in the White House who is willing to do what needs to be done year-round to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires,” they wrote. “The federal government must work with states to actively and meaningfully manage our lands to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.”

Newsom and Nevada Gov. Stephen Sisolak held a joint press conference earlier this week where they pleaded for federal help in fighting wildfires. 

“We need help. We need help on the federal side. We need more people coming in. We need more resources. We need more air support. We need more people and more boots on the ground in order to make this a more fair fight in terms of fighting these fires,”  Sisolak said.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a Friday afternoon press conference that at the briefing with governors, the president received updates from all on the wildfires in their states.

“The president has been receiving regular reports on how wildfires are impacting communities across the country, and he will continue to closely monitor the severity of this situation,” she said. 

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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance.