US Capitol on a smoky hazy day

Wildfire smoke and extreme heat are becoming increasingly common in the United States. They are especially harmful to people living with chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma and COPD. Allergy & Asthma Network, alongside a group of patient advocacy and public health groups, worked with U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) to develop new legislation to protect communities from the impacts of severe wildfire smoke and extreme heat events.

On July 19, 2023, Merkley introduced two federal bills – the Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act and the Smoke and Heat Ready Communities Act – into Congress. The following is a press release from Sen. Merkley’s office. It includes a quote from Allergy & Asthma Network CEO Lynda Mitchell:

“People with asthma and COPD are at risk for breathing emergencies after exposure to wildfire smoke or dangerous heat,” said Lynda Mitchell, CEO of Allergy & Asthma Network. “If you inhale particles of wildfire smoke or breathe in hot and humid air filled with allergens or irritants, it can impact your lung function and lead to coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. More than 25 million people have asthma and 24 million live with COPD in the United States – these are life-threatening chronic diseases that are worsened by poor air quality. Allergy & Asthma Network supports these bills to improve our country’s air quality and readiness for wildfire smoke and extreme heat.”

Merkley Introduces Bills to Protect Americans From Hazardous Wildfire Smoke and Extreme Heat

Wednesday, July 19, 2023, Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley announced the introduction of two bills aimed at protecting communities across the nation from the hazardous health, economic, and environmental impacts of severe wildfire smoke and extreme heat events, which are becoming more frequent due to climate chaos—the Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act and the Smoke and Heat Ready Communities Act.

“When wildfire smoke blankets our communities, it’s dangerous for public health and dampens everyday life for those under the hazardous plumes of dark smoke emitted by these events,” said Senator Merkley. “It’s crucial that we make sure communities have access to all of the resources they need to battle blazes and protect themselves from the dangerous smoke and heat that has unfortunately become expected during these hot summer months. ”

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 Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act is also sponsored by U.S. Sens. Alex Padilla, Dianne Feinstein, and Ron Wyden. Bill text can be found here (PDF).

The Smoke and Heat Ready Communities Act would help states make necessary air quality upgrades by providing federal grant funding to help local communities invest in protecting public health from wildfire smoke. The legislation would:

  • Authorize the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make grants to state and local agencies to support the development and implementation of programs that support local communities in detecting, preparing for, communicating with the public about, or mitigating the environmental and public health aspects of wildfire smoke and extreme heat, including creating clean air or cooling spaces.
  • Authorize the EPA to create four Centers of Excellence at institutions of higher education to ensure that wildfire smoke and extreme heat research is responsive to the challenges that people face on the ground.
  • Authorize the EPA to create a grant program to help states, local government, and tribes research, develop, and implement plans to mitigate wildfire smoke and extreme heat.

Companion legislation led by Representatives Anna Eshoo (D-CA-16) and Mike Thompson (D-CA-04) was introduced in the House of Representatives today.

The Smoke and Heat Ready Communities Act is also sponsored by U.S. Senators Michael Bennet, Dianne Feinstein, Richard Blumenthal, Alex Padilla, John Fetterman, Ron Wyden, and Bernie Sanders. Bill text can be found here (PDF).

This latest legislation builds on Senator Merkley’s work as a leader in Congress in tackling wildfire smoke and heat threats. As Chair of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, he secured major investments for wildfire suppression and forest health in the 2023 federal government funding bill. As part of Fiscal Year 2024 funding in the Agriculture Appropriations bill, which was passed out of the committee last month, Merkley secured $4.5 million for research into smoke-impacted grapes at Oregon State University (OSU) and other West Coast universities.

Earlier this month, Merkley and Bennet introduced the Cleaner Air Spaces Act (CASA), which would provide grants to vastly expand local programs that provide free air filtration units to households and establish clean air centers in communities vulnerable to wildfire smoke. Additionally, Merkley introduced bipartisan legislation to boost specialized wildland firefighter training at civilian conservation centers.

Merkley established a wildfire smoke preparedness grant program at EPA to support local efforts to prepare for and protect against wildfire smoke hazards – which has seen continued funding for the last two fiscal years – as well as securing $800,000 in federal funding as a community-initiated project so the University of Oregon could officially launch its new Center for Wildfire Smoke Research and Practice.

Senator Merkley will continue to push for ways to tackle smoke and heat threats, with the support of key organizations around the country. His Smoke and Heat Ready Communities Act is endorsed by the Neighbors for Clean Air, League of Oregon Cities, Oregon Environmental Council, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Climate Solutions, American Lung Association, American Thoracic Society, Allergy & Asthma Network, American Public Health Association, Moms Clean Air Force, and the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

“About 800 people died in the 2021 heatwave in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Meanwhile, 2020 wildfires in the region caused 100 days of unhealthy air in our most populated communities. Even one day of breathing in polluted air is dangerous for all of our health, and can be catastrophic for the most vulnerable among us. The Smoke and Heat Ready Communities Act will ensure that solutions to wildfire and heat safety and preparedness start in our communities and prioritize protecting the health and well-being of the most at-risk populations such as, the elderly, children, Black Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and low income communities,” said Mary Peveto, Executive Director, Neighbors for Clean Air.

“It’s more important than ever that communities are ready to respond to wildfire smoke events.  Investments in planning and preparation are key along with research that will identify new effective strategies and provide much needed information to help everyone be ready for the next smoke event,” said Cassandra Moseley, Research Professor.

“The Smoke and Heat Ready Communities Act will help bring needed resources to Oregon’s communities to mitigate the impacts of wildfire smoke and heat conditions. Many states, including Oregon have stepped up with some resources, but it’s clear more resources are needed for persistent, ongoing wildfires,” said League of Oregon Cities.

“Oregon has been on the frontlines of extreme heat and smoke fueled by the climate crisis. Common sense solutions – like creating cooling centers, weatherizing homes, and early warning communications – are within reach, but take planning and funding. We applaud Senator Merkley for advocating for more resources to protect our most vulnerable community members, including children and the elderly,” said Jana Gastellum, Executive Director, Oregon Environmental Council.

“Oregon continues to face extreme heat, wildfires, and unhealthy air quality with many frontline communities, including farmworkers and immigrants, being most impacted. We support the Heat and Smoke Ready Act to ensure our communities are involved in the planning and preparation for extreme weather conditions. We must be proactive in protecting Oregonians from these climate disasters,” said Reyna Lopez, Executive Director of PCUN.

“Smoke from wildfires is a dangerous threat to health that is unfortunately becoming much more common for communities across the country. Providing funding for states and communities to use the tools identified by research as effective measures can get timely, science-backed information and resources to the public that can help protect them when wildfire smoke is worsening air quality. Wildfire smoke is a current reality that necessitates the health-focused response this legislation provides,” said Harold Wimmer, National President and CEO of the American Lung Association.

“This summer has demonstrated the clear and present dangers that extreme heat and wildland fire smoke exposure pose to the American public,” said Alison Lee MD MS, chair of the American Thoracic Society (ATS) Environmental Health Policy Committee. “As a clinician who treats patients in NYC, I know the ongoing air pollution from wildland fires is having a direct and adverse effect on my patient’s health. The ATS supports Sen. Merkley’s legislation to give communities the resources and technical assistance they need to respond to the public health emergencies caused by extreme heat and wildland fire smoke. I urge Congress to swiftly enact this important legislation.”

“Children’s bodies are uniquely vulnerable to the harms of extreme heat and wildfire smoke. Growing bodies are less able to adapt to extreme temperatures and little lungs are easily overwhelmed by smoky air. As climate change increases the frequency of both extreme heat and wildfires, we must do all we can to ensure that families are safe and that communities are able to protect themselves. We thank Senator Merkley for introducing this important legislation,” said Dominique Browning, Director and Co-Founder, Moms Clean Air Force.

“The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, representing over 5,000 board-certified allergy and immunology physicians, proudly endorses this important legislation which will help federal, state and local government agencies manage the impacts of heat and smoke related air quality issues in their communities – which can exacerbate respiratory medical conditions that allergists specialize in treating,” said Todd Mahr, MD, ACAAI Executive Medical Director.