Lawmakers Seek to Protect Communities From Wildfire Smoke

June 13, 2023 by Dan McCue
Lawmakers Seek to Protect Communities From Wildfire Smoke
Washington, D.C., shrouded in smoke from the Canadian wildfires, June 8, 2023. (Photo by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON — One week after hundreds of raging wildfires in Canada blanketed the East Coast of the U.S. in heavy smoke, lawmakers in both the House and Senate are moving to ensure communities are better ready to handle such conditions if and when they happen again.

The Cleaner Air Spaces Act, which was introduced Tuesday in the House by Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., and in the Senate by Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., would provide grants to local programs that provide free air filtration units to households and establish so-called “clean air centers” in communities vulnerable to wildfire smoke.

According to the lawmakers, wildfires are now the single largest source of particulate pollution in the U.S., accounting for more than 40% of the nation’s fine particulate matter air pollution.

And the situation, they fear, will only become worse as climate change leads to wildfires growing in frequency and intensity, which in turn ratchet up the harmful impacts felt by infants, the elderly and people with preexisting health conditions such as respiratory or cardiovascular disease.

“The Canadian wildfires are another reminder of how no one is safe from the public health implications of climate change,” Peters said in a written statement announcing the introduction of the bill.

“Catastrophic wildfires, driven by decades of poor land management and a warming planet, are now the single largest source of particulate pollution in the United States, and in 2020 California wildfires released more CO2 than the state’s entire power sector,” Peters continued, adding, “California cities like San Diego are leading the way with programs to provide air filtration units, air monitors, and clean air centers for communities at risk of this dangerous pollution. 

“This bill will help vastly expand these vital programs to meet the challenge of protecting vulnerable communities from more extreme wildfires,” he said.

“Coloradans are all too familiar with the wildfire smoke that engulfed communities across the East Coast last week — it’s a reality that we have long dealt with in our state and across the West,” Bennet said in an accompanying written statement. 

“As we face a 1,200-year drought, a changing climate and a future that is going to be a lot hotter and a lot drier with longer and more severe wildfire seasons, Congress needs to pass this bill to reduce the health risks posed by wildfire smoke and ensure every community has access to clean air,” Bennet said.

Among those who have already thrown their support behind the bill is Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president for Political Affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Dangerous air pollution from wildfires, as millions of people in the eastern U.S. and beyond experienced recently, can cause profound and lasting damage to the body,” Gore said. 

“Exposure for even a few days can worsen asthma and heart disease and trigger strokes and lung infections, among other ailments, putting children and older people at greatest risk. With climate change fueling longer and more active fire seasons, this bill will help to protect families and communities from the health harms by creating spaces for them to breathe safely,” she said.

Laurie Anderson, field organizer for the Moms Clean Air Force Colorado Chapter, said she saw firsthand this spring how harmful days of wildfire smoke coverage can be to a community.

In her case it was smoke from Canadian wildfires that lingered over the Denver metro area for several days, causing residents of the area to experience some of the worst air quality in the world.

“Many of us retreated to safe rooms in our homes with windows closed and air filters running around the clock. Unfortunately, not all families can afford to create safe spaces to protect their lungs from wildfire smoke,” Anderson said, explaining her organization’s support for the Cleaner Air Spaces Act. 

“Everyone deserves to be safe from the dangers of wildfire smoke,” she added.

If passed, the Cleaner Air Spaces Act would:

  • Provide grants to support local cleaner air spaces programs. To qualify, the programs must provide at least 1,000 free air filtration units and one replacement filter for the air filtration units to low-income households with individuals vulnerable to wildfire smoke.
  • Provide educational materials to help eligible households best utilize the air filtration unit and create a clean air room in their home.
  • Establish at least one public clean air center.
  • Require grant recipients to partner with local organizations.
  • Require a report to Congress with survey data from the cleaner air spaces programs and recommendations on if and how the programs should be modified or expanded.

Co-sponsors of the bill in the senate include Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. 

Co-sponsors in the House include: Reps. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., Dean Phillips, D-Minn., Dina Titus, D-Nev., Seth Moulton, D-Mass., Ro Khanna, D-Calif., Jasmine Crockett, D-Texas, Yadira Caraveo, D-Colo., Mike Thompson, D-Calif., Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., and Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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