Another smoky summer forecast for Tri-Cities. Federal help is proposed

Another smoky summer forecast for Tri-Cities. Federal help is proposed


By:  Annette Cary

The federal government would provide help for a new type of emergency under a bill proposed by Oregon’s senators — wildfire smoke.

“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,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, who introduced federal legislation this week with Sen. Jeff Merkley, both democrats.

It is the fifth bill the two senators have introduced this month to help Northwest residents — and their communities, businesses and farms — combat the effects of wildfire smoke and recover from the damage it causes.

The Pacific Northwest has been choked with smoke from wildfires the last two summers, and the Washington state Department of Ecology predicts that climate change will only make the problem worse, with rising temperatures, more frequent and longer-lasting heat waves and drier summers.

In Benton County, more than 20 days each of the past two wildfire seasons had air quality that was rated as worse than “good,” requiring at least some limitations in outdoor activities.

On at least one day so much smoke filled the air that the air quality was rated as “hazardous,” or bad enough that people with heart or lung disease were advised to ask their doctors if they should temporarily leave the Tri-City area.

Outdoor events were canceled, and in early September 2017 schoolchildren had to spend their recesses indoors and principals were advised not to let students line up outdoors.

Most of the smoke that has caused poor air quality in the Tri-Cities the past two summers has come from fires burning in Canada, according to the Washington state Department of Ecology.

SMOKY TRI-CITIES SUMMER EXPECTED

This summer could be a repeat. Natural Resources Canada is predicting another summer with the wildfire severity rated as “well above average” in July and August.

Smoke from fires in northern California through northern Washington state also added to the smoky air in the Tri-Cities the past two years, according to the Department of Ecology.

In the United States, the National Interagency Fire Center predicts another summer with significant wildland fire potential, increasing through September in northern California, western Oregon and western and northern Washington, which could send smoke over the Mid-Columbia.

Oregon’s senators said smoky skies in Oregon in 2017 caused an estimated loss of $51 million in business revenue.

“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,” Merkley said.

The smoke is a health hazard, particularly for those with chronic heart or lung disease, children whose lungs are still developing, pregnant women and their fetuses, and older adults, says the Washington state Department of Health.

Symptoms of smoke inhalation can be comparable to smoking several packs of cigarettes per day, according to staff of the two senators.

FEMA COULD PROVIDE SMOKE RELIEF

The most recent bill introduced by the senators would authorize the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help those most at risk from wildfire smoke — including people whose health is most sensitive to smoke and low-income residents.

FEMA could provide help to those populations if air quality is unhealthy for at least three days.

Help could include air filters, face masks or respirators, and equipment to keep smoke out of houses, ranging from weather stripping to a portable air-condition unit.

In extreme conditions, when preventative measures are inadequate to protect the most vulnerable, FEMA would provide shelter.

Wyden and Merkley earlier this month, as part of a four-bill package, introduced legislation that would establish grant programs to help communities prepare for smoky air.

A FEMA grant program would be started to improve public buildings, like schools, to make sure they can filter smoke from their indoor air.

Another grant program would be similar to the nation’s Weatherization Assistance Program, but would be used to help vulnerable residents smoke-proof their homes. The Small Business Administration would start a grant program to help small businesses protect their customers and employees.

Because farm workers may have to work quickly in smoky conditions to harvest crops and protect them from smoke damage, a second bill in the package would require employees to provide N95 masks, training and education to farm workers exposed to hazardous air conditions.

It also would direct OSHA to develop a standard to protect employees from wildfire smoke exposure.

Under the third bill, the president would be allowed to declare a “smoke emergency.”

Federal assistance could then be available in emergencies and the Small Business Administration could provide financial help to businesses to cover lost revenue.

The fourth bill in the package would provide federal funding for research and community planning, including $20 million for the Environmental Protection Agency to study the public health impacts of wildfire smoke and effective responses.

PREPARE NOW FOR SMOKY AIR

With another potentially smoky summer forecast for the Tri-Cities, the state Department of Ecology says now is the time to prepare.

It recommends:

Talk to your doctor now on how to manage conditions for family members with heart or lung disease, including asthma, during smoky days.

Get HEPA filters for your home’s central air system, air conditioner or air purifier. Also learn how to turn your air conditioning to “recirculate” in your home and your car.

Employers should have a plan for employees who work outdoors, such as relocating workers or assigning alternate work in indoor areas with air filtration systems. Be prepared for employees to face possible childcare closures.

Buy respirator masks. N95 and N100 are protective against smoke.

Plan to have several days of water, groceries and other essentials on hand so you don’t have to go out when it’s smoky.