Biden ups firefighter pay, pushes climate spending as U.S. braces for wildfires

FILE PHOTO: The Bond Fire wildfire continues to burn next to electrical power lines near Modjeska Canyon, California, U.S., December 3, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

By Jarrett Renshaw and Steve Holland

(Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden announced pay raises for federal firefighters on Wednesday and said the United States was behind in its preparations for a potential record number of forest fires this year because of drought and high temperatures.

Biden’s remarks at a virtual meeting with governors of western states sought to show the White House is treating wildfires – which have grown by at least 100 incidents each year since 2015 – are no less a national emergency than hurricanes.

As climate change makes regions like the U.S. western states more arid, wildfires have grown more frequent and ferocious.

At the same time, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management face staffing shortages accelerated by low pay and competition from state and local fire departments.

Biden said he would raise the pay of federal firefighters to at least $15 an hour and bonuses would be paid for those working on the front lines.

The 15,000 federal firefighters, who battle wildfires on federal land, include thousands of seasonal workers who start at roughly $13 an hour and rely on overtime and hazard pay to make ends meet.

The White House also seeks to convert seasonal firefighting jobs to full-time to meet greater demand.

“Climate change is driving a dangerous confluence of extreme heat and prolonged drought. We’re seeing wildfires of greater intensity that move with more speed,” that last well beyond the traditional months of the fire season, Biden said.

“That’s a problem for all of us.”

Biden and fellow Democrats seek billions of dollars from Congress to blunt climate change.

“The truth is we’re playing catch up. This is an area that has been under-resourced, but that’s going to change if we have anything to do with it,” Biden said.

Some Republicans have played down the severity of climate change, with some branding it a hoax.

A bipartisan infrastructure bill includes nearly $50 billion in drought, wildfire, flood, and multi-hazard resilience programs, the White House said on Wednesday, while Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell upped pressure on fellow Republicans not to back it if it was linked with a second spending measure.

The White House meeting with governors included Republicans and Democrats alike from California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and other western states.

(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw and Steve Holland; additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Heather Timmons and Howard Goller)

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