Senators say bill would provide relief from smoky skies, heat waves

Summers aren’t what they used to be.

Extreme heat waves, raging wildfires and skies blanketed with smoke have become regular fixtures of the season for Douglas County residents in recent years.

U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden announced five new bills Wednesday that they say would help blunt the impact of these events.

“The climate crisis is real, it’s here, and we are living its effects in the Pacific Northwest with record-breaking heat, severe drought, and catastrophic infernos,” Wyden said Wednesday in a written statement.

“As we work to combat this emergency, more must be done now to protect the health and safety of workers and families from the harms of extreme heat, dangerous wildfires and their smoke,” he said.

The first of the five bills, called the Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act, would set aside $30 billion for the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to boost catastrophic wildfire reduction projects.

It would also pay for increased forest restoration and provide payments to counties for forest stewardship projects.

The second bill, called the Smoke Planning and Research Act, would fund research on the public health impacts of wildfire smoke and create a grant program for local community planning relating to wildfire smoke.

The Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act would authorize federal emergency assistance for smoke shelters, relocation efforts and smoke monitors. It would also provide financial relief to businesses that have lost revenue due to wildfire smoke.

The Smoke-Ready Communities Act would provide funding for infrastructure upgrades to public buildings to filter out wildfire smoke. It would also assist with local efforts to provide health information about wildfire smoke.

The Farmworker Smoke Protection Act would protect farmworkers from smoke and extreme heat by requiring their employers to provide N95 masks and training and education about hazardous air conditions. It would also direct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to create an official standard for protection from smoke and heat exposure.

Merkley cited the death of a 38-year-old farmworker in St. Paul in Marion County. The man was one of about 100 Oregonians who died during a record-breaking heatwave across much of the state at the end of June.

Merkley said such a death should never happen again.

“The fact that an Oregon farmworker died in the June heatwave is heartbreaking and completely unacceptable. Everyone — no matter what they look like, where they live, or where they work — deserves protections in their workplace, especially when we have triple-digit temperatures,” Merkley said in a written statement Wednesday.