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FEMA chief aims to address climate change's role in disasters like wildfires

FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell's first trip out West since being confirmed in April reinforced her view that the agency must tackle climate change's influence on disasters, such as wildfires and droughts.

Why it matters: FEMA is the lead agency for providing aid to states hit hard by ongoing fires, already approving 19 Fire Management Assistance Grants. The trip illustrated the present-day impacts of climate change, with the twin challenges of fires and drought plainly evident, she told Axios.

The big picture: During the trip, Criswell visited the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho, where federal wildfire activities are coordinated, as well as Oregon and California. She spoke with federal, state and tribal officials about the ongoing severe wildfire season.

State of play: Currently, 82 large wildfires are burning across 13 states. The largest blaze in the Lower 48, known as the Bootleg Fire, has scorched more than 410,000 acres.

  • Criswell told Axios that the pace of the season so far has officials concerned, since it's hard for fire crews to stay this active for such a long duration.
  • More than 21,500 firefighters and support personnel are currently deployed to active blazes in the West, with help now arriving from great distances — including a Boeing 737 firefighting aircraft from Australia — to help as resources are stretched thin.

Criswell said the fire season is running well above previous active seasons seen so far this century. "The nation is currently 200% over the 20-year average for the number of fires by the month of July, and it's 900% over the 20-year average of the acreage that's been affected," she told Axios.

  • "And so, this is July, and the peak of wildfire season typically doesn't happen until August and into September, so it's happening sooner, it's extending longer into the season. So it's a real concern."

Details: During her trip, Criswell met with Governor Kate Brown (D) in Oregon and Gavin Newsom (D) in California, where he saw firsthand how dire the drought situation is, particularly in California.

  • Criswell said climate change is her top priority due to how it is rapidly affecting multiple types of disasters. This was reinforced during her visit to California in particular.
"It was a really interesting conversation about how we as a nation need to start to look at future risks, instead of just looking at the historical data, because the risks that we're going to face in the future as a result of how climate change is impacting our environment is incredibly important."
"Our role in climate, FEMA's role in climate, is one of my key priorities and it has been my priority since day one."
FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell

She mentioned wildfire mitigation grant funding that may help lower the risk that homes will be damaged or destroyed in a blaze as one option that some states, notably California, are pursuing to reduce the risks of a damaging blaze.

Context: Studies show that the West is seeing more frequent and larger wildfires as climate change leads to longer, drier and hotter summers, and alters the timing of the wet and dry seasons.

  • Climate change is also leading to more days with extreme fire weather conditions that feature a combination of unusually high temperatures, powerful winds, and low humidity levels.

Go deeper: Heat dome sends temperatures soaring from Oregon to Louisiana

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