US president Joe Biden pledged to raise the pay of firefighters as America prepares for the annual fire season against the background of a record-breaking heatwave in parts of the country.
Convening a meeting of cabinet members and governors from states most affected by the current surge in temperatures, Mr Biden said that “we have to act, and act fast”.
“This is becoming a regular cycle. We know it’s getting worse. The truth is, we’re playing catch-up. This is an area that’s been under-resourced, but that’s going to change if we have anything to do with it.”
Vast swathes of the US northwest and Canada are struggling under a heatwave, fuelling concerns about drought and wildfires.
More than 100 people have died in British Columbia – most with underlying health conditions – as temperatures have reached close to 50 degrees Celsius.
In cities like Seattle and Portland, Oregon, in the usually temperate northwest of the United States, roads have buckled while public transport has been cancelled due to extreme heat.
The so-called heat dome which is sitting over the Pacific northwest is expected to continue for the rest of the week. Other parts of the country are under excessive heat warnings, including Washington DC.
Opening Wednesday’s meeting at the White House, Mr Biden recalled last year’s fires in California, warning that this year could be tougher based on weather patterns.
A person uses an umbrella for shade from the sun while walking near Pike Place Market in Seattle. Photograph: Ted Warren/AP
He said that some firefighters were being paid $13 an hour – an “unacceptable” figure – as he announced plans to pay at least $15 an hour this year, and also offer a short-term bonus for permanent firefighter employees.
Further, more temporary staff will be hired in anticipation of the fire season in the west. Firefighters have already been battling a lava-fire in California which started following a lightning storm last week.
The region is braced for further fires throughout the summer. Last year, the governor of California declared a state of emergency, with more than 350 fires burning simultaneously in August.
The current record-breaking temperatures have prompted fears that worse could be to come this year.
Speaking at Wednesday’s White House event, governor Gavin Newsom said that people who did not believe in climate change needed to “observe the evidence” and “believe your own damn eyes”.
“There’s no Republican thermometer, no Democratic thermometer. These realities are here with us today,” he said, arguing that forest management policies needed to radically change.
Vice-president Kamala Harris said that, as a resident of California, she had experienced first-hand the threat from fires in the area.
Meanwhile, the president and first lady Jill Biden will visit Surfside, Florida, on Thursday as the search continues for survivors from last week’s apartment collapse north of Miami. The death toll increased to at least 16 on Wednesday, as more bodies were brought from the rubble.
As many as 147 people are still missing, mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County said in an update.
It emerged that a report in 2018 warned of “major structural damage” near the pool and car park of the complex, which may have been the source of last week’s deadly collapse.