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Wyden, Merkley seek federal aid for smoke health issues


Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., introduced legislation Wednesday that would provide federal emergency assistance to at-risk individuals in Oregon and nationwide suffering from unhealthy air quality caused by wildfire smoke.

The Oregon senators said their Wildfire Smoke Relief Act of 2019 would help people most vulnerable to the health damages from wildfire smoke — children, elderly people, pregnant women, low-income families that may lack filtration protections at home, and those with chronic heart or lung conditions.

“Oregonians gasping for breath in neighborhoods clouded by wildfire smoke for weeks on end deserve the same consideration as other disaster victims,” Wyden said. “This bill helping at-risk people find clean air is an essential element of the comprehensive strategy that’s urgently needed to deal now with 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, if and when it happens.”

In 2018, more than 2,000 fires burned nearly 900,000 acres in Oregon – bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island. Southern Oregon alone suffered 39 days of unhealthy air quality directly caused by smoke from wildfires.

The bill would authorize the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help at-risk people by providing low-cost home improvements and smoke inhalation prevention equipment — like masks and air filters — when wildfire smoke causes unhealthy air quality levels for three consecutive days. In extreme circumstances, when preventative measures are inadequate for health and safety, the legislation authorizes FEMA to provide transitional sheltering assistance 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 in the smoke 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 gut 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.

A one-pager on the Wildfire Smoke Relief Act is here. The bill text is here.

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