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The Biden administration will announce several actions Wednesday expanding efforts to combat wildfires, including increased firefighter pay, amid scorching temperatures in the Pacific Northwest that are putting massive stress on infrastructure and public health.
The announcements come as President Joe Biden meets with Western governors to discuss how to prepare better for extreme conditions that scientists say climate change will make a new normal. Eight governors — from Oregon, California, New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Washington — are slated to attend Wednesday’s meeting with Biden. The discussions will also include top Cabinet officials and utility executives.
The backdrop of Biden’s meeting is a raging wildfire season and unprecedented extreme heat across the West, especially the Pacific Northwest. Already this year, more than 1 million acres have burned, which is more than the United States saw by this time in 2020, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Northwest cities are currently seeing triple-digit temperatures, many shattering records in what scientists call an “astonishing heat event.” The heat is buckling streets, melting through streetcar power cables, and forcing at least one Northwest utility to institute rolling outages for the first time in its history. Heat at these extremes can also be lethal.
“The heat that the Pacific Northwest is experiencing right now is truly exceptional. Temperature records are getting broken daily only to be broken the next day,” said Kristina Dahl, a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, based in California.
“While this heat is unprecedented in terms of the temperatures that we’re seeing, it really is to be expected given how far we’ve pushed our climate,” she added.
Dahl was a lead author on a 2019 study from the Union of Concerned Scientists showing the number of days in the U.S. with a heat index of more than 105 degrees Fahrenheit would quadruple by midcentury if the country doesn’t reduce emissions.
Biden alluded to some of the actions the administration is taking last week as he met with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s preparedness team, sounding alarmed that federal firefighters only make $13 an hour. The administration is now pledging to raise those wages to at least $15 an hour, as well as offer bonuses to firefighters on the front lines, a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday night.
In addition, the Biden administration will emphasize mitigation efforts, announcing an unnamed Western state is now a recipient of a FEMA grant to prepare for extreme events such as wildfires. The senior administration official didn’t offer specifics about the grant but noted the administration is offering double the amount of money under that FEMA program during this fiscal year.
Scientists warn that in many ways, the U.S. is playing catch-up on preparedness by racing to react to natural disasters made more intense by climate change rather than giving full attention to preventive measures to reduce the severity.
“A lot of this stuff probably should have started a couple of decades ago, but in classic human fashion, we respond well to acute issues but not so well to chronic issues,” said Matthew Hurteau, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico studying climate change and forest ecosystems.
For example, Hurteau said to combat more severe wildfires, land managers must start reintroducing fire into ecosystems where it has been quickly suppressed. It has long been understood that low-intensity fires help to clear out dead and dying trees and other materials that can spark bigger fires if they pile up.
More broadly, Hurteau and other scientific experts agree one of the most significant things the Biden administration can offer is more funding, both to federal agencies to expand their capacity and to state and local governments that lack the resources on their own for preventive measures or emergency response.
That isn’t just for wildfires. Scientists say that support should extend to extreme heat events such as the one in the Pacific Northwest. Many scientists have been advocating for heat waves to be named, similar to wildfires and hurricanes, to raise awareness of their severity.
FEMA currently doesn’t recognize heat waves as a natural hazard, said Vivek Shandas, a professor at Portland State University who has seen readings on his thermometers spike to as high as 121 degrees Fahrenheit in recent days. If FEMA designated heat waves as natural hazards, it would funnel more federal dollars to states and cities for emergency response, including public cooling centers and air-conditioning units.
Federal support should also extend to local renewable energy projects to ensure when people are running their air conditioners more often, those machines are powered by clean energy, said Dahl of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Shandas said he has noticed an increasing focus on “shovel-ready” projects to boost climate resilience under the Biden administration. Even so, he said there isn’t a recognition of the scale of what must be done to prepare regions for extreme heat and other severe disasters.
“A million dollars here or a million dollars there may be helpful for some communities to blunt the acute effects of heat in the coming years, but it’s not going to be at the scale which we’re needing this work to happen across the country,” Shandas said.
“It really is an Apollo space mission-scale program that needs to be really prioritized in order for us to reduce the excess morbidity and mortality” caused by these heat waves, he added.
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Original Author: Abby Smith
Original Location: Facing scorched Pacific Northwest, Biden unveils measures to fight wildfires