Gazing down from Marine One, President Joe Biden surveyed miles of scorched earth slicing through dense green forests, the scars left by one of the worst wildfires to threaten California.
Firefighters were able to protect the area around Lake Tahoe, but not before the Caldor fire decimated the small town of Grizzly Flats and destroyed hundreds of homes.
“These fires are blinking code red for our nation. They’re gaining frequency and ferocity. And we know what we need to do,” the president said at a Sacramento airport after his aerial tour.
Biden approved a federal disaster declaration for the area on Sunday, and officials warned that toxic waste runoff and sediment from the fire could threaten the watershed around Lake Tahoe.
The president’s trip to California reflects not only political imperatives — he’s campaigning for Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is trying to fend off a recall campaign on Tuesday — but also his administration’s increasing focus on wildfires.
Biden has participated in regular briefings on the issue, and he’s pushing for more spending on infrastructure to mitigate climate change, which scientists say is intensifying forest fires.
“I have not seen this much attention on what I would call good forest management and wildland management as I have with this administration,” Cal Fire Director Thom Porter said, adding that in my 30-year career in this, I haven’t seen any attention like this.”
Newsom, who greeted Biden after he landed on Air Force One and accompanied him for a briefing on wildfires, praised his commitment with an implicit swipe at former president Donald Trump. “We’re not sparring partners. We’re working partners,” Newsom said.
Before arriving in Sacramento, Biden stopped in Boise, Idaho, where he became the first president to visit the National Interagency Fire Center since it was founded five decades ago.
“You know the time of the year when the air fills with smoke and the sky turns a little orange,” he said in Boise, adding: “But that time of year is getting earlier every year.”
There have been an estimated 44,000 wildfires this year, with 5.4 million acres (2.2 million hectares) burned nationwide.
Biden said people on the East Coast struggle to comprehend the scale of the destruction, which rivals the size of New Jersey. “It’s just unfathomable. They don’t full understand how big the West is.”
Biden said climate change will continue to worsen wildfires and other natural disasters. “We can’t continue to try to ignore reality. The reality is, we have a global warming problem,” Bien said, adding, “It’s not going to get any better than it is today. It only can get worse.”
More than 2 million acres have burned in California so far this year, which puts the state roughly on pace to equal last year’s fire season, the worst on record.
Dry vegetation, hot temperatures and the potential for high winds have raised concerns that the fall could bring even more devastating blazes to California.
The state budget allocates 1.5 billion dollars for wildfire prevention work that includes clearing brush and forest management.
In a meeting with Biden and other governors in late July, Newsom said the state needed more federal support to increase the number of firefighters and improve its fleet of aircraft.
The governor implored Biden to direct the US Forest Service to more aggressively suppress fires on federal lands. “The US Forest Service is spectacular,” Newsom said in July. “We have deep admiration, respect, but there’s a culture that too often is ‘wait and see.’ We can’t afford that any longer.”
Biden and his administration have taken steps to support firefighters who have struggled with low pay, high attrition and inadequate resources.
Last month, about 15,000 firefighters working for the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior saw their pay increased to at least 15 dollars per hour.
Some were making as little as 13 dollars.
The Pentagon also extended a program that gives firefighters access to military satellite data, which helps officials track conflagrations and decide where to deploy resources.
The programme, known as FireGuard, had been slated to expire this month. “We owe you more than our thanks,” Biden said in Boise, adding “We owe you what you need to deal with these problems.”