United States

Biden pushes climate spending as U.S. braces for wildfire disaster

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June 30 (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that the United States was behind in preparing for what could be a record number of forest fires this year because of drought and high temperatures and pledged to pay federal firefighters more.

Biden held a virtual meeting with governors of western states in an event designed to show the White House treating wildfires - which have grown by at least 100 incidents each year since 2015 - as no less a national emergency than hurricanes.

"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.

Biden has warned of increasingly dangerous consequences of global warming despite pushback from Republicans over his plans to invest in infrastructure and other measures to battle the consequences of climate change.

"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," Biden said. "That's a problem for all of us."

Wildfires have become more frequent and ferocious in increasingly arid U.S. western states. 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 White House also seeks to convert seasonal firefighting jobs to full-time.

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U.S. President Joe Biden holds a meeting with cabinet officials, governors and private sector partners to discuss preparedness of Western states to heat, drought and wildfires this season, at the White House in Washington, U.S. June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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

Biden and his fellow Democrats want billions of dollars from Congress to blunt climate change. Some Republicans have played down the severity of climate change, with some branding it a hoax. The conflict over this and other spending measures is likely to dominate the summer in Washington, a season of wildfires and hurricanes.

Former President Donald Trump, a Republican who pulled the United States out of the Paris agreement on climate change, blamed poor forest management for wildfires in 2020 and advocated raking forest floors.

The Biden White House rejoined the Paris accord.

Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom of California, who attended Biden's virtual meeting on Wednesday, noted the difference in approaches between the two administrations and said higher temperatures were a reality that knew no partisan lines.

"With due respect to those that don't believe in science, you got to believe your own damn eyes," Newsom said. "There's no Republican thermometer, no Democratic thermometer. These realities are here with us today."

A bipartisan infrastructure bill includes nearly $50 billion in drought, wildfire, flood, and multi-hazard resilience programs, the White House said, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pressured fellow Republicans not to back it if it was linked with a second spending measure. read more

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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