Remarks by US President Biden during a briefing on the New Mexico wildfires

New Mexico State Regional Training Facility Facility

Santa Fe, New Mexico

3:18 p.m. MDT

THE PRESIDENT Well, Governor, thank you very much. Before we begin, we are on National Guard property. I just want to say that the National Guard, of course, is controlled by the governor, except when federalized. And I federalized you a number of times across the country to fight fires, to fight every disaster that we had. And my son was a Major in the National Guard. And I think people don’t quite understand the scope — the scope of the work you’re doing and the risk you’re taking for us.

And secondly, there is an expression where I come from: “God made man, then he made firefighters. You’re all crazy — (laughs) — but I love you. 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 shrunk and we moved to this little steel town. And I went to a little Catholic school across from the fire department – a fire station. And everyone I grew up with – either you became a cop or a firefighter or a priest. I wasn’t qualified for any of them, so here I am. (Laugh.)

I – but, you know, just so you know, I overdid it

individual and collective funerals for firefighters and stars and — and, you are an incredible group of people. I mean, a really amazing group of people.

Anyone – and the – and the overwhelming human instinct is that you’re running from a fire, not into it. And the only thing that protects firefighters is more firefighters – the only thing. More firefighters.

And I just wanted to say it up front because I–you have my 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 so thick. And you couldn’t see through the windows or through the windows. And the floors were crumbling, and these guys came in and did two things: most importantly, they got my wife out – I was in Washington when it happened – and saved our cat. But just as important, almost – not equally important, but important – I have a ’67 Corvette that they released. (Laugh.)

And so, anyway. But my point is: you are amazing. And so, Governor, thank you. And Senators Heinrich and Luján, thank you very much for all you do. 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 maybe the proudest thing I’ve done is appointing the first Native American to be a cabinet minister. (Applause.) But she’s only been in New Mexico for 35 generations. You are a newcomer. (Laughs.) A newcomer.

But, listen, another special thank you to the firefighters – over 4,000 of you. More than 4,000 of you put your life on the line.

And we are about to receive a briefing on the largest and most destructive wildfire in America so far this year and the largest wildfire in New Mexico history.

I just skimmed over some of the damage. And Air Force One is so big we couldn’t get in, but we flew over the perimeter of the–of the fire. And that’s an incredible amount of territory.

And the impact on the families who have been there for so long is so significant. And in there — in a way — you know, there’s, you know, almost 700,000 acres. And a new fire has just started – just started. Thousands of displaced people. Farmers decimated. Schools closed. And wild nature – it looks like a moonscape. You could see parts of it where I–I was able to see.

And I mean 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 who have been here for centuries and the beautiful villages of northern New Mexico who cannot return home and whose livelihoods have been fundamentally modified.

Governor, let me be clear: we will be here for you in response and recovery for as long as it takes. As long as it takes. (Applause.)

And I learned something about this Governor: When she asks for something, I just say, “Yes.” (Laughs.) But I don’t think there’s —

GOVERNOR LUJAN GRISHAM: Can you ask the legislator to do that?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, that’s – (laughter) – that’s what we’re trying. You know, I’ve publicly stated that I support him – to support him. It’s 100 percent – anyway.

Well, I hope we can achieve this. I know Ben Ray is working hard in the House to get passage. But we will — I have a little more trouble with the United States Senate. We have 50 Democratic senators, which means we have 51 presidents.

And so that’s – you know, we have to get consensus and we can’t – not consensus, in some cases, if they insist on it being a – requiring closure, and we need 60 votes . So that…that remains to be seen.

And so – but, you know, when you asked for a major disaster declaration, Governor, I immediately responded, providing millions of dollars in housing assistance and cash grants and emergency responder funding – not because they are of service; It is an obligation. I think we have a responsibility, as a government, as — to look after the communities that are put — in such danger.

And today, I am announcing that the federal government is covering 100% of the cost of – (applause) – debris removal and emergency protective measures for the next critical months that are – in this recovery.

And then there will be a solid bridge until we — until we pass the — Hermit Peak Fire Assistance Act, introduced by Senator Luján and Senator Heinrich and your — and Senator Fernández , as well as Stansbury, to fully compensate — fully compensate the survivors for their total loss.

We also provide – (applause) – financing and loans to small businesses, farmers and ranchers. And we need to be sure that it won’t happen again. We know the circumstances of Hermit’s Park and Calfe [Calf] Canyon fires are unique, starting with prescribed burning.

Every year the Forest Service, to put that into perspective – they do a very good job – does 4,500 prescribed burns. 99.8% go as planned. And – but this time, tragically, it’s not. And that’s why the Forest Service just put a complete pause on prescribed burns in our–in Forest Service lands. And it’s doing a 90-day intensive review, which will make public the – all the details of that review. And it must 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 the folks back home, there are hundreds of firefighters — federal personnel on the ground trying to get you through this. I think if you take a look, the most important thing you can do is register with FEMA so you can quickly get the help you deserve and need. And there’s a FEMA mobile app that lets you quickly sign up for help. And it’s also available in Spanish.

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

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Just under 400.

THE PRESIDENT Just under 400 here. And that’s – (applause) – I don’t have – we – if you don’t have phone service yet, you have Disaster Recovers – Recovery Centers in Mora and Las Vegas where you can also sign up.

And we also have a team on the ground to help you register. And FEMA is calling everyone who is denied help – everyone who is denied help to make sure they get the help they need and in the language they speak.

A lot of, you know – you know, you have to know how to know. You have to know what you need to know to be able to do something. I can walk into the Library of Congress – one of the great libraries in the world – if you don’t know how to use the card catalog, it’s not very useful to you. I’m serious. You must know how to know.

And so we’ve learned, in our administration, that it’s not enough to provide help, but to let people know how they can access help, and when they can’t, how they can resolve this issue.

So eligible residents can enroll in a state program that provides benefits for groceries and—as well as hot meals.

Longer term, but right now, we need to help deal with the combined impacts of drought and wildfires and – that threaten your vital watershed. And it’s hard to explain to people in the east when I talk about it, because we went—we spent time, the director of FEMA and I, in other parts of the country—in the northern California, Oregon, Idaho – to explain what we’re talking about – the scope, size and consequences – and how the watershed is not – not – literally but in (inaudible) evaporating in many places. Find yourself in a position where it has a vital, vital impact.

And through Bipartisan Infrastructure, we are already investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the state of your drought relief and wildfire and water mitigation infrastructure.

And as the monsoon season approaches, we have authorized an additional $22 million to protect critical water infrastructure from post-fire flooding – (applause) – post-fire flooding and debris flows. And–and the work begins today. It starts today. Not – not next week, not next month. Today.

The bottom line is, Gov – to the people of New Mexico: we will do whatever it takes, however long it takes, to follow your leadership and what – by telling us what you need. And I promise you that I – and I – and we are joking around a bit. They say “the governor is on the phone”. I say, “Just tell him yes.” And then I start the conversation. Y’all think I’m kidding. I am not joking. (Laugh.)

So I will stop here. And I guess we’ll have – start the briefing, if we could. And – but I guess, David, I’m talking to you first. You’re secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, so I’ll turn it over to you. OK?

3:29 p.m. MDT

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Kevin E. Boling