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On Sacramento Visit, Biden Tours Wildfire Damage Before Stumping For Newsom On Eve Of Recall

Andrew Nixon
President Joe Biden arrives at Mather Airport before touring damage from the Caldor Fire Monday, Sept 13, 2021.

President Joe Biden came to California on Monday with two goals: highlight the perils of western wildfires to push Congress to pass his infrastructure bill, and to stump for Gov. Gavin Newsom, who’s facing a recall election on Tuesday.

The president touched down at Mather Airport in Sacramento in the afternoon to survey wildfire damage by helicopter in El Dorado County hours before co-hosting an election-eve rally in Long Beach with Newsom.

“We’re working closely with Gov. Newsom to make sure California has every resource — every resource available to keep families safe,” Biden said. “And the governor has led his state with poise and strong leadership. He’s been an innovator in items for long term solutions, and he and I are both optimistic.”

Without mentioning his name, Newsom compared Biden’s response to western fires with that of former President Donald Trump, who last year told state officials “I don’t think science knows” in regard to climate change.

“I’ve been around this business long enough to note the distinction between the people that are interested in things, and people that are committed to solving things,” Newsom said.

Biden’s trip comes the day after he declared a major disaster in California because of the Caldor Fire, which has burned more than 219,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 structures, including 782 homes. The FEMA declaration means federal funding will be available for affected communities to recover.

It's just one of several megafires still burning in California, with the Dixie Fire — which started above the Cresta Dam in the Feather River Canyon on July 13 — being the largest at more than 960,000 acres.

In his first California stop, Biden met with Newsom and other state officials at the California Office of Emergency Services, where he was debriefed on the firefighting efforts in the state and pushed his infrastructure reconciliation bill, which includes $3.5 trillion in additional projects.

The president said he has bipartisan support for the proposal, and mentioned that he couldn't get all of his climate measures into the plan. Instead, he said he has included it in his reconciliation package.

Biden’s proposal includes billions in funding for the USDA Forest Service — which owns nearly half of California’s forestland. In July, Newsom called out Biden’s administration for waiting to act on the Tamarack Fire, which has burned more than 68,000 acres in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in California and Nevada.

He also touted his recent move to increase federal firefighters’ pay to no less than $15 an hour, a number he said still needs to be higher.

The president acknowledged that “decades of forest management decisions” have led to dangerous conditions for wildfires in the west.

“But we can’t ignore the reality that these wildfires are being supercharged by climate change,” Biden said. “It isn’t about red or blue states, it’s about fires — just fires.”

Newsom has also been criticized for his handling of the state’s wildfires. Investigations from CapRadio and NPR’s California Newsroom sparked debate within the Legislature over funding and spurred calls for oversight hearings. One story revealed Newsom significantly overstated the amount of fire prevention work completed during his first year in office. It also found the governor signed a budget last year that cut funding for fire prevention by about $150 million.

Biden was asked as he was leaving the airport hangar about the reports that Newsom had overstated his wildfire preparedness, but he did not answer.

California lawmakers approved a budget package last week that would guarantee nearly $1 billion in wildfire prevention funding for the current fiscal year and require at least $200 million annually for the next six years.

The funding this year would be nearly triple what Newsom approved for wildfire prevention and resource management in his first year in office.

The president’s West Coast trip started in Boise, Idaho, where he met with officials at the National Interagency Fire Center, which provides unified guidance for U.S. fire agencies.

In his Boise stop, Biden was briefed on the fires that are burning more than 5.5 million acres in the Western states this year alone, according to the NIFC’s data. In California, more than 2.2 million acres have burned.

He warned that climate change “only can get worse, not better.”

“The reality is we have a global warming problem — a serious global warming problem — and it's consequential,” Biden said. “And what's going to happen is things aren't going to go back to what they were. It's not like you can build back to what it was before. It's not going to get any better than it is today.”

Fire scientists say that until the state begins to be more proactive in mitigating wildfires, rather than fighting them reactively, megafires will persist.

Clarification: This story was updated to clarify that fire scientists say fuel reduction measures are key to combating megafires.