BOISE — President Joe Biden came to Boise on Monday for a briefing on wildfires at the National Interagency Fire Center, the first presidential visit to Idaho since then-President Barack Obama visited Boise State University in 2015.

Biden’s first visit to Idaho as president came just days after he announced plans for sweeping COVID-19 vaccine requirements affecting as many as 100 million Americans; in vaccine-resistant Idaho, the announcement has drawn opposition including protesters near the site of Monday’s presidential visit and Gov. Brad Little’s announcement Friday that he’s exploring legal action against it. Idaho has one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country; it also is experiencing one of the nation’s worst surges of the virus, with northern Idaho hospitals operating under Crisis Standards of Care that permit rationing of care amid scare resources.

But it was the wildfire situation, and related climate change issues, that drew Biden to Boise on Monday. His trip was part of a western swing that also was scheduled to include stops in Sacramento, Calif.; an aerial tour of the Caldor Fire in the Sierra Nevada mountains; a campaign stop Monday evening with California Gov. Gavin Newson, who faces a recall election on Tuesday; and a stop in Denver on Tuesday to promote his economic agenda.

Biden arrived in Boise around 11:45 a.m. and held a roundtable briefing with federal and state fire officials and Idaho Gov. Brad Little at NIFC.

Air Force One in Boise

Air Force One lands at the Boise Airport on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021.

The president will also tour NIFC with members of the media and is scheduled to leave Boise at 1:55 p.m.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday the president wants to highlight how wildfire season now lasts all year, and that severe weather affects one in three Americans, the Associated Press reported. Scientists say climate change has made the American West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

Though this year’s wildfire season in Idaho has been relatively moderate in the southern portion of the state, forest fires have raged extensively in northern Idaho, and smoke from wildfires near and far has inundated the Treasure Valley since June, much earlier in the year than has been seen in the past. The state remains tinder-dry after a record-hot summer, and the national preparedness level has been at its highest level, five, for 60 days.

According to NIFC, more than 3.1 million acres have burned in wildfires thus far this fire season, and 80 large wildfires are currently burning across the nation, with more than 22,000 wildland firefighters and support personnel working to fight them.

This year, NIFC has predicted above normal significant wildland fire potential for the Treasure Valley in September.

NIFC in Boise coordinates wildfire response across the nation, including multiple federal agencies.

{div class=”subscriber-preview”}Biden said climate change is driving the nation’s catastrophic wildfires. “It’s not a Democrat thing, it’s not a Republican thing. It’s a weather thing,” he declared. “It’s reality. It’s serious”{/div}

Biden at NIFC

President Joe Biden, left, sits inside the Interagency Fire Center in Boise on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021.

“I just want you to know that you have the full support of my administration” in wildfire efforts, Biden told Little. “I’m here to hear what’s on you mind” and “to help.”

Fighting wildfires is part of national defense, the president said.

Little told the president that collaboration is key, and noted the cross-agency collaborative work that’s done at NIFC. “There’s a lot of great work done by your agencies,” he told Biden. “But we know about a third of forests are at risk of catastrophic fires, and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

{div class=”subscriber-only”}Biden praised the work of firefighters, saying, “We’re in a situation where too many memorials are being held.”{/div}

{div class=”subscriber-only”}Washington state Forester George Geissler, speaking for the National Association of State Foresters, told Biden that states are fighting fires side by side with federal officials. “It really demands national attention,” he said.

Grant Beebe, U.S. Bureau of Land Management assistant director for fire and aviation, served as host for the roundtable briefing.

The president told the group that states can’t bear all the burden of the nation’s catastrophic wildfire situation. “We’re one America,” he said.{/div}

Since President Lyndon Johnson visited the Idaho National Laboratory in eastern Idaho in 1966, every modern sitting president but one has visited Idaho; the one exception was former President Donald Trump.

This is a developing story and will be updated

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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