SAN DIEGO — Officials are ramping up their efforts to both prevent wildfires and more effectively battle the blazes when they do occur, with a sense of urgency coming from the very top of U.S. government.
“The truth is we’re playing catch-up” on preparing for extreme heat and wildfires, President Joe Biden said at a virtual meeting with governors from Western states this week. Biden called federal efforts “under-resourced” compared with the deadly threat posed by climate change and extreme drought.
Western states have been parched by severe drought and record heat that has burned more than 2,300 square miles (5,900 square kilometers) this year. That’s ahead of the pace in 2020, which saw a near-record 15,000 square miles (40,000 square kilometers) burned, killing dozens of people and destroying more than 17,000 homes and other structures.
“Much of the state — 85% — is in this extreme drought or exceptional drought,” Dr. Jolie Kalansky from Scrips Oceanography research center, told FOX 5.
And the hot, dry conditions come before a Fourth of July holiday that could see amateur fireworks sparking serious blazes.
“Fuels are extremely dry right now,” said Capt. John Choi from the North County Fire Protection District. “This has been showcased in recent fires we’ve had. We had the Mesa Fire at Pala that grew 350 acres in a short amount of time.”
“The fireworks can be extremely dangerous, they can start fires,” Choi added. “That fuel is ready to receive that spark and start those fires. So please, please no fireworks whatsoever.”
Biden said a beefed up federal effort has to aid the work of local fire officials.
“We have to do it,″ Biden told the governors. “We can’t cut corners when it comes to managing our wildfires or supporting our firefighters. Right now we have to act and act fast.″
Recalling horrific scenes from wildfires in California and other states last year, Biden said, “Orange skies look like end-of-days smoke and ash.″
Biden’s plan would ensure that no one fighting wildland fires is making less than $15 per hour and would add or convert to full-time nearly 1,000 firefighters across a host of agencies.
“Because of climate change, wildland firefighting is no longer a seasonal endeavor,” the White House said in a statement. “With fire seasons turning into fire years, it is imperative to have a year-round workforce that is available to respond at any time … and is available to undertake preventive actions” such as cutting down small trees and brush that serve as fuel to fires that are increasing in size and intensity.