The Potluck

Walz meets with Biden on wildfires as state warns of unprecedented poor air quality

By: - July 30, 2021 4:23 pm

Smoke from Canadian wildfires has led to some of the worst air quality in recorded history. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Gov. Tim Walz on Friday met virtually with President Joe Biden and six other governors to discuss the impacts of drought on Minnesota and strategies to adapt to the effects of climate change.

The meeting came as more than half the state is experiencing severe or extreme drought. Minnesota is also blanketed in smoke from wildfires in Canada, leading the state Pollution Control Agency on Friday to extend an “unprecedented” air quality alert through Tuesday.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is warning residents of an air quality alert through Tuesday, citing some of the worst air pollution on record.

There are currently 83 large fires across 13 states that have burned more than 1.7 million acres of land, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, a government agency that serves as a support center for wildland fires and other emergency situations. Those states include Idaho, Montana, Washington, Alaska, Oregon, Wyoming, California, Arizona, Nevada, South Dakota, Colorado, Utah and Minnesota.

Walz asked Biden to consider flexibility and quick action on cattle grazing restrictions, citing concerns about the effects of the dry spell on agricultural production. Walz had asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack earlier this month to allow emergency grazing and haying on Conservation Reserve Program lands in areas experiencing severe drought.

“There’s good reasons that many of these things were put in place, but we also have to come to the realization they were put in place at a different time, when climate wasn’t acting like this. The ability to move quickly saves livelihoods,” Walz said during the meeting Friday. “The lack of movement is measured in days out here, not years.”

Walz also stressed the importance of the United States’ international fire management partnerships. These allow nations to use each others’ firefighting personnel and equipment during periods of high wildfire activity.

The wildfires raging in Canada could spread into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The remoteness of the region makes it a challenge to fight fires, and they would be difficult to contain once started there, Walz said.

“Our Canadian neighbors are fighting wildfires, keeping them out of Minnesota,” Walz said. “Without them and without international cooperation, we would not get this done. So I will make the case that, as we think about national strategy, please keep those international agreements in order.”

Biden said he’s been in contact with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about coordinating efforts.

“My mother always used to say, ‘There’s always something good that will come out of something bad,'” Biden said. “The only thing that’s coming out of this that’s good, is that people are realizing we’ve got a serious, serious climate problem.”

Biden said the upcoming infrastructure bill would help Western states battle wildfires. He said there were also climate change provisions to help prevent many of the fires by clearing dead trees from forests and boosting personnel to help fight the fires.

“There is a lot of money in here to help you manage the fires,” he said.

Biden also suggested for states and county leaders to continue partnering with FEMA, as the agency approved 20 forest management assistant grants totaling $100 million to help states pay for the cost of fighting fires.

He added that the administration was also working with FEMA and the Defense Logistics Agency to get ahead of emergency supply chain issues that have been disrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The other governors on the call were  Jay Inslee of Washington, Brad Little of Idaho, Gavin Newsom of California, Kate Brown of Oregon, Mark Gordon of Wyoming and Greg Gianforte of Montana.

States Newsroom D.C. bureau reporter Ariana Figueroa contributed reporting.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.