Remarks by President Biden in a briefing on the New Mexico wildfires

Facility for regional training in the state of New Mexico
Santa Fe, New Mexico

3:18 p.m. MDT

THE PRESIDENT: Well, Governor, thank you very much. Before I begin, we’re on National Guard compound. I just want to say that the National Guard is obviously controlled by the governor unless it’s federalized. And I’ve federalized you a few times nationwide to fight fires to fight every disaster we’ve had. And my son was a major in the National Guard. And I think people don’t quite understand the scale – the scale of your work and the risk you’re taking for us.

And second, there’s an expression that I come from: “God made man, then he made some firefighters.” You’re all crazy – (Laughter) – but I love you guys. I grew up in a neighborhood called Claymont Delaware when we moved from Scranton when the coal died. And you know, my parents weren’t in the coal mines – they were in sales – but the economy dwindled and we moved down to this little steel town. And I went to a little Catholic school across from the fire station – a fire station. And everyone I grew up with – they became either a police officer, a fireman, or a priest. I didn’t qualify for any of them, so here I am. (Laugh.)

I – but, you know, just so you know, I’ve made too many
Individual and mass funerals for firefighters and hotshots and – and you are an incredible group of people. I mean, a really incredible group of people.

Everyone – and who – and the overwhelming human instinct is to run from a fire, not into it. And the only thing that protects firefighters is more firefighters – the only thing there is. More firefighters.

And I only wanted to say that at the beginning because I – you have my guilty gratitude. And my fire department literally saved my life, not figuratively. My house was struck by lightning and most of it burned down. It had to be rebuilt.

Saved – the thick – the smoke was so thick, governor. It was literally that thick. And you couldn’t see through the windows or out of the windows. And the floors collapsed, and these guys went in and did two things: Most importantly, they got my wife out — I was in Washington when it happened — and rescued our cat. But equally important, almost – not equally, but importantly – I have a ’67 Corvette that they put out. (Laugh.)

And so anyway. But my point is: you are incredible. So, governor, thank you. And Senators Heinrich and Luján, thank you for everything you are doing. And Teresa Leger Fernández and — you know, Herrell, and — and, you know, Stansbury, and all the members of the House are doing a great job.

And — but perhaps the proudest thing I’ve done is appointed the first Native American to serve as a cabinet minister. (Applause) But she’s only been in New Mexico for 35 generations. you are a newbie (laughter) A newcomer.

But look, a special thank you again to the firefighters – over 4,000 of you. Over 4,000 of them risk their lives.

And we’re about to have a briefing on the largest, most destructive wildfire in America so far this year and the largest wildfire in New Mexico history.

I just flew over part of the damage. And Air Force One is so damn big we couldn’t get in, but we flew around that – of the fire. And it’s an amazing amount of territory.

And the impact on families who have been there for so long is so momentous. And in that – in a way – there’s, you know, almost 700,000 acres. And a new fire has just begun – has just begun. Thousands of people displaced. ranchers wiped out. schools closed. And wilderness – it looks like a lunar landscape. You could see parts of it where I – I could see.

And I think about what you think, and that’s our responsibility. It’s not a gift. We have a responsibility to help this state recover, to help the families that have been here for centuries and the beautiful villages of northern New Mexico who can’t go home and whose livelihoods have been fundamentally changed.

Governor, let me be clear: we will be with you for as long as necessary to respond and recover. As long as it takes. (Applause.)

And I learned something about this governor: If she asks something, I just say yes. (laughter) But I don’t think it’s –

GOVERNOR LUJAN GRISHAM: Can you get the legislature to do that?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, that’s – (Laughter) – that’s what we’re trying to do. You know, I went on record publicly to support it – to support it. That’s 100 percent – anyway.

There – I hope we can work this out. I know Ben Ray is working like hell around the house to get passage. But we will — I’ve got a little more trouble in the United States Senate. We have 50 Democratic Senators, which means we have 51 Presidents.

And so it’s — you know, we have to get consensus and we can’t — in some cases, no consensus, if they insist it requires a — cloture, and we need 60 votes. So, it – it remains to be seen.

And so — but, you know, when you asked for a declaration of a major disaster, Governor, I responded immediately by providing millions of dollars in housing benefits and cash grants and funding for emergency responders — not because they’re doing any favors; It’s an obligation. I think we have a responsibility as a government to address the communities that are at risk of this kind.

And today I’m announcing that the federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost — (Applause) — of debris removal and emergency preparedness for the next few critical months that are — going into this recovery.

And then there will be a strong bridge until we — that we pass the Hermit Peak Fire Support Act introduced by Senator Luján and Senator Heinrich and theirs — and Senator Fernández and Stansbury, to fully compensate the survivors for their total loss.

We’re also — (Applause) — we’re also providing funding and credit to small businesses, farmers and ranchers. And we have to be sure that it doesn’t happen again. We know the circumstances of Hermit’s Park and Calf [Calf] Canyon Fires are unique, starting with the prescribed burn.

Every year, to put that in perspective – they do a damn fine job – the forest service does 4,500 mandatory burns. 99.8 percent go as planned. And – but this time, tragically, it wasn’t the case. And that’s why the Forest Service just completely banned the mandatory burnings in our — in the Forest Service countries. And it conducts an intensive 90-day review that will make all the details of this review public. And that has to happen. And I will be informed of the results, and we will inform the world of the results – the country of the results.

And for folks back home, there are hundreds of fires — from federal personnel on the ground trying to help you get through this. I think if you take a look, the number one thing you can do is register with FEMA, which will quickly give you the support you deserve and need. And there’s a FEMA mobile app that you can use to quickly register for support. And it’s also available in Spanish.

And our director of FEMA, who I think has done an incredible job – roughly how many people do you have here now?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Almost 400.

THE PRESIDENT: Almost 400 here. And it’s — (Applause) — not me — we — if you don’t already have phone service, you have Disaster Recovers — Recovery Centers in Mora and Las Vegas, where you can also register.

And we also have a team on site to help you with registration. And FEMA calls every person who is denied – every person who is denied to make sure they get the help they need, in the language they speak.

A lot, you know – you know, you have to know how to know. You have to know what you need to know in order to get something done. I can go to the Library of Congress – one of the greatest libraries in the world – if you don’t know how to use the card catalogue, it won’t do you much good. I mean it that way. You gotta know how to know.

And so we’ve learned in our administration that it’s not enough just to provide the help, but to let people know how to access the help and if that’s not possible, how to fix the problem.

And so, eligible residents can enroll in a state program that offers benefits on buying groceries and—and hot meals, too.

In the longer term, but starting now, we need to help with the combined effects of drought and wildfires and – threatening your vital watershed. And it’s hard to explain to people in the east when I talk about it, because we went to Northern California, Oregon — we spent some time, the FEMA director and I, in other parts of the country, in Idaho — to explain , what we’re talking about – the scope and the magnitude and the consequences – and how the watershed is not – not – literally, but in many places (inaudibly) evaporating. Find yourself in a position where it has vital implications.

And through bipartisan infrastructure, we’re already investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the state—in your drought relief, wildfire-fighting, and water infrastructure.

And as the monsoon season approaches, we’ve approved an additional $22 million to protect critical water infrastructure from flooding after fires — (Applause) — flooding after fires and debris flows. And – and the work begins today. Today it starts. Not – not next week, not next month. Today.

The bottom line is, Governor — to the people of New Mexico: We will do whatever it takes to follow your lead and whatever — and tell us what you need. And I promise you, I – and I – and we’re kidding. They say the “Governor is on the phone.” I say, “Just tell her yes.” And then I start the conversation. Y’all think I’m joking. I’m not joking. (Laugh.)

So I’ll stop here. And I guess we’ll start the briefing if we could. And – but I think David, I’ll talk to you first. You’re the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, so I’ll give in to you. OK?

3:29 p.m. MDT

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