(Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday will announce pay raises and bonuses for federal firefighters ahead of a meeting with western state governors who may face a record number of forest blazes this year because of drought and high temperatures.
Wednesday’s virtual meeting, to include Cabinet officials, aims 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, a senior administration official said on Tuesday.
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.
The U.S. government employs some 15,000 firefighters to battle wildfires on federal land, including thousands of seasonal workers who start at roughly $13 an hour and rely on overtime and hazard pay to make ends meet.
Biden recently called that a “ridiculously low salary.” He plans to announce that no federal firefighter will make less than $15 an hour, the official said.
The White House will announce it seeks to convert seasonal firefighting jobs to full-time as demands have increased and to pay retention bonuses.
This year’s wildfire season may serve as an ominous backdrop as Biden and fellow Democrats seek billions of dollars from Congress to blunt climate change, offering real-time examples of the need for more taxpayer investment.
Some Republicans have played down the severity of climate change, 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 governors’ meeting on Wednesday will include Republicans and Democrats alike from California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and other western states.
It will further pressure the large number of lawmakers from both parties representing western states like Arizona, California and New Mexico to shed partisan politics and pay for more firefighters and increased mitigation efforts.
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