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Viewpoint: The destructive wildfires in the West

The BLM official who briefed President Biden during his Boise visit lays out the points he made to him about wildfire management and supporting firefighters.

BOISE, Idaho — For the past several years, wildfire managers across the West have predicted that wildfire seasons are going to get longer and become more destructive.

While not a record year, 2021 was a destructive year for Idaho's lands.

Wildfires have destroyed several thousand buildings and homes and several people have died, including 15 wildland firefighters. A spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise said the firefighters died of causes including medical incidents, such as heart attacks, vehicle accidents, and other causes.

More than 45,000 wildfires have burned just under six million acres this year, according to NIFC. 67 large fires are still burning in 12 states and have consumed 3.1 million acres. Of the total number of fires, nearly 40,000 were human-caused.

21 large fires are still burning in Idaho, ranging in size from 146 acres to 80,000 acres. Overall, wildfires here have destroyed more than 252,000 acres to date. The 10-year average for acres burned between 2011 and 2020 was 641,000 acres. 

To date, the 2021 fire season has been average.

President Biden visited Boise two weeks ago to shine a spotlight on the growing threat of Western wildfires and to call for urgent action on climate change. 

Biden discussed wildfire prevention with Idaho officials, got a briefing on the wildfire situation, met with smokejumpers, spoke of his support for firefighters, and toured NIFC, which coordinates the nation's response to fires.

BLM Assistant Director for Fire and Aviation Grant Beebe briefed President Biden during his visit. During the taping of this week's Viewpoint, he laid out the main points he made to the president.

"Firefighters are the key to all of this at all levels, the local cooperators, the county folks, the state folks, the federal folks," Beebe said. "With the wildfire situation, we're seeing now year after year in the west, we need a different model really for how we're responding to fires. We need to do a lot more fuel management and we need to take care of our people better, give them a more stable environment. I'll say when I started out as a firefighter, I was a seasonal firefighter working my way through college, and that was kind of a model based on the fire seasons we used to have in the West. We've got different fire seasons now, so we need a different model for staffing up. So we're looking at longer fire seasons. We need longer duration and better pay for our firefighters."

The Biden administration bumped up the minimum wage for about 15,000 federal wildland firefighters from $13 to $15 dollars an hour in August. In the wake of the president's visit, Beebe said there are ongoing discussions with the administration about the western wildfire situation and ways to confront the challenges it presents.

Beebe also discussed the significance of the president's visit, reasons wildfire seasons are getting longer, and why wildland firefighters do this job when the pay is not great. 

Viewpoint airs Sunday mornings at 9:00 right after Meet the Press on KTVB NewsChannel 7.

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