As Bootleg Fire Rages, Merkley, Wyden Introduce Package of Bills to Help Communities Harmed by Wildfire Smoke

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden today introduced three bills to help the public, businesses, and agricultural operators combat the effects of wildfire smoke, and recover from the damage it causes: the Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act, the Smoke Planning and Research Act, and the Wildfire Smoke Relief Act.

The introductions are the latest in a years-long effort by Merkley and Wyden to help prevent, fight, and recover from increasingly severe wildfires—and come as the Bootleg fire continues to grow at a startling pace, after already burning more than 530 square miles of forest and grasslands.

“When last year’s Labor Day fires broke out, I drove over 600 miles across Oregon and never once broke out of the thick layer of smoke that had blanketed the state,” said Merkley. “And now, less than a year later, the Bootleg Fire is burning out of control—destroying homes, businesses, and farms, forcing thousands of Oregonians to evacuate, and sending plumes of smoke into the air that are so big they’re visible from outer space. I’m fully committed to doing everything I can to not only secure the resources we need to address the root causes of these fires and to control the blazes as quickly as possible, but also to help Oregonians cope with, and recover from, increasingly extreme hot weather conditions and the dangerous smoke these wildfires produce.”

“The infernos burning today are not your grandfather’s wildfires. They are burning bigger and hotter and bringing devastation to communities in their path. Look at the Bootleg Fire. It’s the largest wildfire currently burning nationwide, and it’s so big it’s creating its own weather patterns with its smoke traveling all the way across the country,” Wyden said. “These bills would take critical action to protect vulnerable Oregonians in our communities from the severe risks of wildfires, including smoke-related health risks. I am all in to make sure Oregonians have the resources they need to survive and recover from these catastrophic fires that threaten the lives, quality of life, and livelihoods of Oregonians.”

The increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires has become a serious public health issue across the United States. Wildfire smoke—not only from Oregon’s fires, but also drifting into the state from as far away as Canada or southern California—has become a hazard each summer. Smoke can stretch from one end of the state to the other, posing a major challenge for many communities, businesses and agriculture operations. Even without fires nearby, significant amounts of smoke can drift from afar. At various points in recent years, both Portland and Medford’s air quality was ranked among the most hazardous in the world.

Much like in the cases of tornados or floods, federal assistance is necessary to help communities protect their health and provide relief to businesses that lose revenue from smoke.

The bills address public health and economic impacts of wildfire smoke.

The Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act would allow the president to declare a “smoke emergency” when wildfire smoke creates hazardous air quality conditions.

  • This declaration would authorize federal agencies to provide emergency assistance to states and local communities to establish smoke shelters, assist with relocation efforts, and install emergency smoke monitors.
  • The bill would also authorize the Small Business Administration to provide financial relief to businesses affected by wildfire smoke to help cover lost revenue.

The Smoke Planning and Research Act would provide federal funding to help communities research, develop, and implement plans to help mitigate smoke by:

  • Establishing four Centers of Excellence at institutions of higher education to ensure that research is responsive to the challenges that people face on the ground.
  • Authorizing $20 million in research funding through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to study the public health impacts of wildfire smoke and effective responses.
  • Creating a grant program at EPA to help local communities plan and respond to wildfire smoke.

The Wildfire Smoke Relief Act would provide federal emergency assistance to at-risk individuals—including the elderly, children and infants, low-income families, pregnant women, and those with chronic health conditions made worse by wildfire smoke—in areas with unhealthy air quality caused by wildfires by:

  • Authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide these individuals with 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.
  • Allowing FEMA to provide transitional sheltering assistance for at-risk individuals in extreme circumstances.

In addition to Merkley and Wyden, the Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act and the Smoke Planning and Research Act are cosponsored by U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Alex Padilla (D-CA).