Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have introduced legislation that would rush federal emergency assistance to health-vulnerable individuals nationwide suffering from unhealthy air quality caused by wildfire smoke. Thse most at-risk are children, elderly people, pregnant women, low-income families and those with chronic heart or lung conditions.
“Oregonians gasping for breath in neighborhoods clouded by wildfire smoke for weeks deserve the same consideration as other disaster victims,” Wyden said. “This bill helps at-risk smoke victims acquire clean air despite the increased frequency and severity of wildfires striking our state and the West.”
“Across Oregon, businesses, schools and families have told me how smoke from wildfires caused economic losses, respiratory problems, and more because even indoors, HVAC systems weren’t equipped to handle the level of pollution that wildfire smoke caused,” Merkley said. “We must provide emergency resources for communities to cope with the suffocating smoke when it happens.”
In 2018, more than 2,000 fires burned nearly 900,000 acres in Oregon. Southern Oregon alone suffered well over a month of unhealthy air caused by smoke from wildfires.
The bill would authorize the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help at-risk people by providing low-cost devices like masks and air filters — when wildfire smoke is forecasted to cause unhealthy air for at least three consecutive days. In extreme circumstances, when preventative measures are inadequate for health and safety, the legislation authorizes FEMA to provide assistance for transitional sheltering for at-risk people.
“As a family medicine physician at a community health center, I care for some of the most vulnerable people in my community,” said Dr. Justin Adams, Chief Medical Officer of La Clinica Wellness Center in Medford. “Long periods of summer smoke have significant impacts on both the physical and mental health of my patients. The Wildfire Smoke Relief Act would help to provide my patients with the equipment that they need to stay safe, and, when needed, to escape to somewhere where they can find clean air.”
“Imagine not being able to leave your house for weeks on end due to unhealthy air,” said Jim Shames, Medical Director of Jackson County Health and Human Services. “Now imagine that it is over 90 degrees outside. That was the situation in Southern Oregon last year. Finally, imagine that you don’t have air conditioning, or air filtration, and in some cases, that you don’t have a structure to call home. We need to do all we can to provide a safe refuge for all our citizens, regardless of income, when the air quality is unhealthy.”
“Citizens of Southwest Oregon have suffered through nearly four months of wildfire smoke over the last two summers,” said Chris Chambers, Wildfire Division Chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue. “This bill by Senators Wyden and Merkley recognizes that we’re on the front line of climate change, and vulnerable people in our communities are suffering the consequences of a global problem and need help.”
In addition to the newly introduced Wildfire Smoke Relief Act, Senators Merkley and Wyden also have introduced four bills — the Smoke-Ready Communities Act, the Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act, the Farmworker Smoke Protection Act, and the Smoke Planning and Research Act — to help the public, businesses and agricultural operations combat wildfire smoke’s effects, and recover from the damage it causes.
At a recent U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, Wyden also raised serious concerns about a new U.S. Forest Service proposal to ignore environmental rules for forest management projects at a time when there’s a serious backlog of wildfire prevention work. Wyden requested that Forest Service Director of Fire Aviation and Management Shawna Legarza provide a written statement within a week of the hearing on the new Forest Service policy and ways the agency is addressing the current backlog of wildfire prevention projects—a request the agency has failed to fulfill.