Governors of wildfire-ravaged states told President Biden in a Friday teleconference that they’re not only facing problems with fuel-choked dry forests and getting enough manpower and technological assets to detect and battle blazes, but warned that the jet fuel shortage is impacting their ability to get firefighting aircraft in the skies.
Despite “the incredible bravery and heroism of our firefighters, our resources are already being stretched to keep up,” Biden said. “We need more help, particularly when we also factor in the additional nationwide challenges of pandemic-related supply-chain disruptions and our ongoing efforts to fight COVID. We’ve had a few COVID clusters at our fire camps, which further limits resources. ”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency so far has approved 20 fire management assistance grants to help states pay for the cost of fighting the ongoing wildfires, and FEMA and the Defense Logistics Agency are working together “to get ahead of these emergency supply-chain challenges,” Biden said, though “we still have some supply-chain challenges relating to hoses and a number of other things.” DoD aircraft will be aiding in fire detection and firefighting, and U.S. allies are contributing to the effort — such as Australia sending a firefighting Boeing 737 from the New South Wales Rural Fire Service to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise this week under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“I also encourage our states and county leaders to continue partnering with FEMA, as many of the leaders on the scene today are leveraging our public alert and warning systems to communicate information directly and quickly to the public about wildfires, evacuations, power outages, and more,” the president added. “I know several of the governors’ states have used this system recently to send warnings of evacuation orders, and it has undoubtedly helped people and, we don’t know for certain, but likely saved some lives. But we’re in for a long fight yet this year, and the only way we’re going to meet those challenges is by working together.”
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, whose state is battling multiple large fires in the west, said there are “many forests in Montana that have not had good stewardship,” with “a tinderbox situation” created by tree-killing beetles.
“The growth has gotten to the point — I can take you 10 miles west of the state capital in Helena and show you a federal forest where 90 percent of the trees are standing dead,” he said. “…When we get a lightning strike or a campfire out of control and a fire starts in a forest like that, we put firefighters at risk. They’re very hard to control.”
Gianforte said that when crews work to clear forests, “when we thin, when we remove excess fuels, water comes back into surface streams, wildlife comes back into that community.”
“And when wildfire goes through a managed forest, it doesn’t then get into the crown. It doesn’t burn as hot,” he said. “We don’t have the devastation. And structures aren’t threatened. So everybody wins when we have good stewardship of the forest.”
Biden replied “that’s really important for people to get.”
“Because we talk about thinning out the forest. We’re talking about a lot of trees, because of climate change as well, where you have bugs, insects, eating up the trees as well, making things that are changing and killing the forest themselves, and they become real tinder,” the president said. “And it’s like, you know, dropping a match almost like in a pool of fuel.”
Washington state is battling the Cub Creek 2 and Cedar Creek fires and other blazes in the northeast part of the state. Gov. Jay Inslee said his state has “a huge need for additional aerial assets, additional dozer bosses so we can get our dozers into fire lines.”
“We need new — more trained people. We do have an emerging concern about our fuel supply for our aerial assets,” he added. “Everything we need to fight forest fires is in dire need across the Western United States, not just in Washington state. We’ve had a thousand fires. It’s burned four times more at this time of year than normal. We’ve had two and a half times more acreage burn in the last decade than the previous.”
Inslee stressed that “there’s unanimity, there’s bipartisan acceptance of the need for active management — we’re managing our forests, just like Montana is, to try to get in and reduce fuel.”
The Washington governor added that “there is nothing in human intervention against these fires while climate continues to ravage our forest.”
Forests are now “just fields of fuel, and they’re fields of fire with just one spark because they’re so dry — and that aridity creates something like gasoline on the floor of our forest.”
“Our own federal scientists have said that if we accept a one-degree centigrade change, we’ll have 600 percent increase in these fires on a regular basis,” Inslee said. “We won’t recognize these forests as forests anymore unless we succeed” with policies to combat climate change.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom relaunched in April the Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force, which oversees implementation of the state’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan released in January. Biden called it a “real example of being able to coordinate federal, state, local because this is getting real — this needs a lot of coordination.”
Pacific Gas & Electric announced Wednesday that the utility plans to bury 10,000 miles of power lines in an effort to reduce wildfire risk, amounting to about 10 percent of its distribution and transmission lines. “What’s that going to do to the cost of energy in your state?” Biden asked. “I mean, because that’s expensive stuff.”
Newsom replied that will cost $1 million to $3.5 million a mile, but “do the math on decades of neglect.”
“Ten thousand miles is a drop in the bucket. They have 106,000 miles of distribution line,” he added. “Twenty-five thousand just in high-risk, fire-prone areas, which will only grow. That’s a 10-year commitment. It’s important, but I want to put it in perspective.”
California’s biggest blazes still being fought in the northern part of the state include the Dixie Fire, Tamarack Fire, and Beckwourth Complex at the Nevada border.
Newsom said the state is “blowing past every record, and not in a good way.”
“We’re at over 5,700 fires year-to-date. We suppressed 59 just yesterday with some initial attacks. Over half a million acres already burned in California,” he said. “To put in perspective — a record-breaking year. Last year, we were at 130,000 acres burned. We’re at 504,000 as I speak to you today.”
Newsom echoed Inslee in asking Biden to “please pay attention to this fuels issue” to ensure that firefighting aircraft can get off the ground.
“We had to get our National Guard to get some emergency fuel supplies for our aerial fleet a week ago. This is a major issue, and it’s not just impacting our aerial suppression strategies on the West Coast. It’s increasingly, as you may know, impacting commercial aviation. It is a major issue,” he said. “Number two, we just simply need more boots on the ground. We can’t do without you. We’ve got 7,400 people — 7,400 already. We’re not in fire season. Fire season in California is late September, October, into November. We’re in July. We already have 7,400 personnel actively working to suppress fires.”
Last year, Newsom noted, the federal government asked California for more than 5,000 personnel for mutual aid support “that we could not provide.”
“That gives you a sense of what the federal government wanted from California last year to send to other states,” he added. “That should give you a sense of how far behind we are with federal support.”
California currently doesn’t have access to DC-10s to help fight the blazes and also lost a 747 that’s “now been grounded by a private contractor.” Even with the largest civil aviation fleet for firefighting in the world, Newsom said, the state does “not come close to having the tools in the air that we need” and needs federal support “to dramatically increase the aerial support, in addition to boots on the ground.”
“Every year, we’re competing — and you have a lot of legislators that have been doing heroic work in Democratic states, governors, and Republican states — trying to get access to the Pentagon satellite technology for early detection. It’s been a game-changer for us,” the governor added. “And we’re getting it on a year-to-year basis, but it’s hard. Every year, we fight to get a one-year extension on that access to a critical tool of technology. I’d encourage you to help us so we’re not just fighting every year for something that I think you would support and the Pentagon, at the end of the day, final analysis will approve.” Biden promised to get on the phone with the Defense Department to discuss the issue.
Newsom met with Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak this past week to discuss the lightning-sparked Beckwouth Complex, wildfires burning on federal land that merged. “Fifty-seven percent of the forest property in California is federal, just three percent under California jurisdiction. Three percent. Fifty-seven percent under U.S. Forest Service,” Newsom said. “U.S. Forest Service is spectacular. We have deep admiration and respect, but there’s a culture that, too often, is ‘wait and see.’ We can’t afford that any longer. This was a federal fire. They waited. And what we saw is the fire took off because we didn’t put enough initial assets.”
The governor asked for administration help “to change the culture, in terms of the suppression strategies, in this climate, literally and figuratively, to be more aggressive on these federal fires.”
“That fire bled into Nevada and, obviously, impacted not just our two states, but deeply impacted the redundancy of this concern that comes out every year around jurisdictions and incident command and the imperative that we’re all on the same page, in terms of those initial attack strategies,” Newsom added.