Merkley, Wyden Introduce Major 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 four bills to help the public, businesses and agricultural operations combat the effects of wildfire smoke, and recover from the damage it causes: the Smoke-Ready Communities Act, the Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act, the Farmworker Smoke Protection Act, and the Smoke Planning and Research Act.

“Last August in the Rogue Valley, I looked up at a sun that was neon pink through the thick haze of smoke from wildfires,” Merkley said. “Business owners and organizations told me how the smoke caused lost reservations, canceled shows, and even irreparable damage at a furniture store after the fabrics absorbed the smoke smell. Folks told me about respiratory problems even indoors because HVAC systems weren’t equipped to handle the level of pollution they were experiencing. And communities all over the state experienced these impacts.

“We must invest in preventive measures to contain wildfires and keep them from becoming intense, destructive blazes, and that’s why I introduced my Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act,” he continued. “And we must help communities cope with intense smoke, and recover from its damage. This package of bills tackles this serious problem from multiple angles.”

“I have seen firsthand how the damage from wildfire smoke to public health and the local economies of communities throughout Oregon and nationwide becomes painfully clear with each passing year,” Wyden said. “This comprehensive package of bills will help to protect those communities when that smoke invades their homes, farms and businesses as well as to respond more effectively to the impacts from these destructive blazes.”

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 last year, both Portland and Medford’s air was ranked among the lowest quality 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. Businesses in Oregon lost an estimated $51.1 million in revenue during 2017 alone due to wildfire smoke.

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

The Smoke-Ready Communities Act would make necessary air quality upgrades more accessible by providing federal funding to help local communities invest in protecting public health from wildfire smoke by:

  • Creating a grant program within the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide flexible funding for communities to improve public buildings, like schools, to ensure that they can sufficiently filter indoor air to keep it safe from smoke.
  • Creating a grant program through the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide grant funding to help vulnerable Oregonians smoke-proof their homes and provide assistance with the associated energy costs, similar to existing programs like the Low-Income Home Energy Program or the Weatherization Assistance Program.
  • Creating a grant program within the Small Business Administration to help small businesses invest in technologies to protect their customers and employees from the impact of 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 Farmworker Smoke Protection Act would help ensure that farmworkers are protected from hazardous wildfire smoke. During wildfire season farmworkers often have to work quickly in smoky conditions to harvest crops and protect them from smoke damage, and many do so without proper respiratory protection.

  • The bill would require employers to provide N95 masks or other NIOSH-certified respiratory protection, along with training and education, to farmworkers exposed to hazardous air conditions.
  • It would also direct OSHA to develop and publish an official standard to protect employees from wildfire smoke exposure.
  • The bill is endorsed by Farmworker Justice.

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.
  • This bill is endorsed by the American Lung Association and the American Thoracic Society.