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Biden talks fire, infrastructure and support for Newsom in California blitz

President Joe Biden said the bipartisan infrastructure package will help with fire mitigation efforts in the near term and alleviate climate change in the long term as he stood by California Governor Gavin Newsom on the eve of an election to recall him.

(CN) — President Joe Biden arrived in California on Monday to survey the damage of the Caldor Fire, tout his infrastructure package aimed at addressing climate change while providing jobs, and to lend tacit support to California Governor Gavin Newsom who faces a recall bid.

Biden did not directly endorse Newsom during his brief speech on wildfires, but the two Democratic leaders appeared very sympatico during their public appearances throughout Monday. 

Newsom was the first person to greet the president as he disembarked from Air Force One in Sacramento, shaking hands on the tarmac in front of the cameras as both men removed their masks to talk since there is no outdoor mask mandate in most of the Golden State.

“We’re not sparring partners, we are working partners,” Newsom said of Biden in introductory remarks. The preface to Biden’s speech marked a sharp departure from Newsom’s approach to former President Donald Trump, with whom he repeatedly fought, in the courts and in the press. 

Earlier Monday, Biden stopped at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, to discuss the impact of wildland fire throughout the American West. 

“Years of poor forest management decisions have created the hazardous conditions we see across the American West,” Biden said during his speech in California. “But we can’t ignore the reality that these fires are being supercharged by climate change.”

The eight largest fires in California history have all occurred since 2017, while all in the top 10 largest have occurred after 2000. This year, the Dixie Fire has burned nearly a million acres so far, becoming the second largest fire in recorded California history.

But the Caldor Fire has done the most damage, burning 1,000 structures and at one point threatening Lake Tahoe — forcing thousands to flee South Lake Tahoe over Labor Day weekend. The Lake Tahoe area had the worst air quality in the nation for weeks at a time. 

“Everyone in Northern California knows the time of year when you can’t go outside when smoke fills the year and the sky turns an apocalyptic shade of orange,” Biden said. 

The president said his infrastructure packages include provisions that will address wildfire prevention and suppression. 

“The bipartisan bill includes $8 billion for increased resilience in wildfires,” he said. “The reconciliation bill includes $14 billion in disaster relief. We are not going to leave these people in distress.”

Biden also said his approach to infrastructure will create a reduction in fossil fuels, which is needed to improve the weather conditions like drought and higher temperatures that have rendered western forests into veritable tinderboxes. 

“If we continue to see fossil fuels burn at this rate, it increases the risk these firefighters face,” he said. 

Biden joined Newsom for an aerial tour of the Caldor Fire, which has so far burned about 216,000 acres in the federally managed El Dorado National Forest between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. 

Some residents have been critical of federal management of the national forests, saying there is not enough tree removal and the policy of the U.S. Forest Service letting remote portions burn occasionally is causing small fires to grow large. Others say fire suppression is the problem and that allowing some fire in the forest will thin overgrowth and prevent the large high-intensity fires that have become commonplace in the last decade. 

Biden is eager to return to his campaign promises regarding infrastructure investment after his polls have dipped, presumably due to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the persistence of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The pandemic response orchestrated by Newsom — one of the strictest in the nation — prompted the recall election, but recent polls show the majority of California voters support the approach and the embattled governor is likely to survive the effort to unseat him. Several polls indicate his victory will be by a significant margin. 

After spiking in July and August, cases have begun to decline in the Golden State. The 7-day rolling average of Covid deaths have hovered around 100, well below last winter’s spike. 

Biden and Newsom flew to Long Beach after the speech, where they will participate in a rally to generate support for the governor on the eve of the recall election. So far 7 million ballots of 22 million mailed out have already been cast.

Follow Matthew Renda on Twitter

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