August 18, 2021

Merkley, Wyden Unveil Bills to Protect Americans from Increasingly Frequent Extreme Heat Events, Hazardous Wildfire Smoke

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley is leading U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Alex Padilla (D-CA) today in unveiling five bills aimed at battling wildfires, protecting workers, and helping the public, businesses, and agricultural operators combat the effects of extreme heat and wildfire smoke.

The bills follow a summer of drought and numerous triple-digit temperature spikes in Oregon, one of which claimed the life of a 38-year-old farmworker in St. Paul, Ore. Severe drought and lighting strikes all across the state also erupted into a series of fires, including the Bootleg Fire—which is finally nearing containment after burning nearly 650 square miles of forest and grasslands.

“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. We have a responsibility to do everything we can to make sure this never happens again, meaning we need federal safeguards,” Merkley said. “It’s also crucial that we make sure that communities have access to all of the resources they need to battle blazes and protect themselves from the hazardous wildfire smoke that is blanketing our state with increasing frequency. I’m going to keep fighting to get each of these bills across the finish line so we can make sure those resources are ready to go when we need them.”

"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. "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."

The increasing frequency and intensity of droughts and extreme heat is a serious public health issue across the United States. A heat wave in June of this year brought temperatures into the triple digits, claiming at least 116 Oregonian lives and creating unsafe working environments for many more. The Oregon Occupational Safety & Health Administration collected over 100 complaints from Oregon workers describing unsafe working conditions related to the heat.

Additionally, wildfire smoke—not only from Oregon’s fires, but also drifting into the state from as far away as Canada or southern California—has become an increasingly frequent hazard. Smoke can stretch from one end of the state to the other, posing a major challenge for many communities, businesses and agriculture operations. Even without fires nearby, significant amounts of smoke can drift from afar. At various points in recent years, both communities across the state had air quality that was ranked among the most hazardous in the world.

Given those threats, Merkley’s bills are designed to better equip communities to put out catastrophic wildfires, and help address the public health and economic impacts of extreme heat and wildfire smoke.

The Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act would reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, while creating economic opportunities in communities that rely on forests, by:

  • Supporting Wildfire Reduction Projects: A $30 billion fund would be used to provide stability and allow the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other land management agencies to increase the pace and scale of catastrophic wildfire reduction projects.
  • Working with Local Communities: $1 billion would be authorized to empower federal agencies to work with local communities to plan and prepare for wildfires.
  • Reauthorizing Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Projects: This legislation would permanently reauthorize the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, allowing more projects to receive funding in a given fiscal year.
  • Creating a County Stewardship Fund: This legislation would create a County Stewardship Fund that would provide payments to counties equal to 25 percent of stewardship contract receipts on federal land within their counties.

The Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act is cosponsored U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Alex Padilla (D-CA), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). 

The Smoke Planning and Research Act would provide federal funding to help communities research, develop, and implement plans to help mitigate smoke by:

  • Establishing four Centers of Excellence at institutions of higher education to ensure that research is responsive to the challenges that people face on the ground.
  • Authorizing $20 million in research funding through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to study the public health impacts of wildfire smoke and effective responses.
  • Creating a grant program at EPA to help local communities plan and respond to wildfire smoke.

The Smoke Planning and Research Act is cosponsored U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Alex Padilla (D-CA), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). 

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 cosponsored by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Alex Padilla (D-CA), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

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

  • Support efforts by state and local government to communicate public health information regarding wildfire smoke.
  • Provide funding to make infrastructure upgrades to public buildings to filter out wildfire smoke.
  • Provide funding to purchase and store personal protective equipment.
  • Provide funding to private entities with financial need to acquire protective gear and carry out other measures to mitigate smoke.

The Smoke-Ready Communities Act is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Alex Padilla (D-CA), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

The Farmworker Smoke Protection Act would help ensure that farmworkers are protected from hazardous wildfire smoke and extreme heat. During wildfire season farmworkers often have to work quickly in smoky conditions to harvest crops and protect them from smoke damage, and many do so without proper respiratory protection.

  • The bill would require employers to provide N95 masks or other NIOSH-certified respiratory protection, along with training and education, to farmworkers exposed to hazardous air conditions.
  • It would also direct OSHA to develop and publish an official standard to protect employees from wildfire smoke and extreme heat exposure.

The Farmworker Smoke Protection Act is cosponsored by U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR).