Severe wildfire smoke should be considered a natural disaster if it shuts down a community

06 July 2019

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If government forecasts are correct, there is a good chance Tri-Citians will have to manage life under smoky skies at some point this summer — and if we do, we will be miserable.

We could get lucky, but with the Northwest wildfire season becoming more severe, starting earlier and lasting longer, the odds are not in our favor.

That’s why several smoke-related bills introduced in the U.S. Senate last month have our attention.

Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Jeff Merkley, both Democrats from Oregon, said their Wildfire Smoke Relief Act of 2019 would help people most vulnerable to wildfire smoke — children, the elderly, pregnant women, people with heart or lung conditions and low-income people who can’t afford filtration systems in their homes.

Included in other bills proposed by Wyden and Merkley, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) could provide help to communities if air quality is unhealthy for at least three days.

Proposed legislation also would provide grant money so people can smoke-proof their homes, and it would make sure public buildings, such as schools, are able to filter smoke from the indoor air.

In addition, if conditions are ever deemed a “smoke emergency,” the Small Business Administration would be able to provide financial help to business owners if wildfire smoke forced them to shut their doors for too long.

People “gasping for breath in neighborhoods clouded by wildfire smoke for weeks on end deserve the same consideration as other disaster victims,” Wyden said. “We must provide emergency resources for communities to cope with the suffocating smoke, if and when it happens.”

For decades, wildfires were not considered natural disasters by the federal government, so money to fight a catastrophic blaze came out of the budgets of the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior.

That meant the agencies would have to borrow money from other programs to cover the cost, and ironically, the money designated to help with fire prevention was one that tended to get raided.

Finally, last year Congress approved a change to that system, and created an emergency fund of $2.2 billion, which Forest Service and Interior officials can use after they’ve exhausted their own firefighting budgets.

Wyden, Merkley and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., pushed for this change, so wildfires now can be considered a natural disaster like hurricanes and floods.

Now that this has been accomplished, it makes sense to address not just the fire damage, but also the smoke that can linger over a community, causing health problems for residents and financial problems for businesses that lose customers when it is too smoky for people to go outside.

In Benton County, more than 20 days each of the past two wildfire seasons had air quality that was rated as worse than “good,” and limited outdoor activities.

On at least one day, there was so much smoke in the air that the air quality was rated “hazardous,” and people with heart or lung diseases were advised to ask their doctors if they should leave the Tri-City area until the smoke cleared enough for them to return home.

Outdoor programs were canceled. Athletes were advised to train indoors if they could, and in 2017 elementary schools kept children inside during recess.

And this summer could be just as bad. The National Interagency Fire Center predicts an “above normal” fire season for the Northwest, which makes us wonder what “normal” means anymore.

Even when communities are miles away from a wildfire, the smoke can drift and settle for days, causing people to stay indoors, which hurts people’s health and limits business.

If it goes on long enough, the effects can be devastating – just like other natural disasters. Communities need relief, and proposed legislation by Wyden and Merkley would provide a safety net.

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