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Biden offers $50 billion to fight West wildfires, boosts firefighter pay

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Biden offers $50 billion to fight West wildfires, boosts firefighter pay
Smoke from a major wildfire is seen near Jamestown, Colo., on October 17. President Joe Biden will meet with eight Western governors on Wednesday to plan for the new wildfire season.  File Photo by Bob Strong/UPI | License Photo

June 30 (UPI) -- President Joe Biden offered assistance Wednesday to a group of Western governors to help them prepare their states for the new wildfire season, which is well underway.

Biden offered the states $50 billion in wildfire protection and risk mitigation funds as part of a proposed bipartisan infrastructure deal.

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Biden's administration also said it will help increase firefighters' pay to a minimum of $15 per hour and work with Congress to improve compensation.

"These are short-term solutions to support our federal wildland firefighters, especially due to the multiple impacts of COVID and climate change this year," the White House said in a statement.

RELATED High heat, drought conditions fuel dozens of wildfires in western U.S.

"The administration will work with Congress on longer-term much-needed compensation, benefit, and work-life balance reforms for federal wildland firefighters."

The White House also said Biden wants to extend hiring for temporary firefighters, transition more fire personnel into the permanent positions, train and equip military personnel to respond to wildfires and increase the number of air tankers and helicopters.

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Officials said Biden will also leverage satellite and other technologies to support fire crews and other emergency personnel and work with electric companies to mitigate issues with power lines and electrical grids in high-risk areas.

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Wednesday's meeting, which the governors attended remotely, was attended by Vice President Kamala Harris and Govs. Kate Brown of Oregon, Gavin Newsom of California, Mark Gordon of Wyoming, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, Spencer Cox of Utah, Steve Sisolak of Nevada, Jay Inslee of Washington and Jared Polis of Colorado.

The White House said the group and private sector partners went over the "devastating intersection of drought, heat and wildfires" in the West and developed ways to strengthen "prevention, preparedness and response efforts."

A number of fires are burning in western states -- particularly California, Arizona and Oregon. In California, for example, the Lava Fire has burned more than 13,300 acres in Siskiyou County.

RELATED Heat wave in western U.S. will set records

"We're at a point where we're simply going to be overwhelmed year after year going forward given the current systems we have in place," Jim Whittington, an expert in wildland fire response, told the Los Angeles Times.

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"We really need to look at the way we staff and work wildland fires, the way we fund them and the way we take care of our people. We need a full reset."

Some experts say the federal government's partnership will be a welcome effort after former President Donald Trump often blamed the fires on poor forest management.

Some Western governors have said Wednesday's meeting was tainted by partisan politics.

Republican Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte complained on social media that he was not invited to participate, nor were Doug Ducey of Arizona and Brad Little of Idaho.

"Disappointed to learn in news stories that [Biden] didn't offer a seat at the table to Montana and other states facing a severe wildfire season," Gianforte tweeted last week. "I hope his call for working together wasn't just lip service and Montana's invitation is just lost in the mail."

Gordon and Cox, who attended the meeting, are Republicans.

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