April 17, 2024

Wildfire smoke is the next public health crisis 

First, you smell the smoke, then you see it, then you feel it in your lungs. 

Tens of millions of us, from Hawaii to California to D.C., felt this terrifying feeling this year. 

Particles in wildfire smoke are 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair, making it one of the most dangerous forms of air pollution. First these particles enter our lungs and then seep into our bloodstream. This process can immediately trigger pneumonia or a heart attack. Long term, the exposure can cause asthma and cardiovascular disease.  

It’s time we recognized that wildfire smoke is causing a public health crisis.  

The smoke is only getting worse as wildfires grow. In the last decade, more acres have burned than any other period in history. Communities thousands of miles from these fires, many who have never considered the threat of wildfire smoke, are suffering from its effects through school closures, spikes in emergency room visits, and millions of dollars being drained from local economies. 

According to a Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability study, less than half a million people lived in areas experiencing unhealthy air at least one day per year a decade ago. That number has ballooned to over 8 million in recent years — a 27-fold increase. No one is safe from wildfire smoke. 

This smoke is devastating in my community in California’s Central Valley. As a result, we have some of the highest rates of childhood asthma in California, some of the worst air quality in the nation, and the most years of life lost due to pollution. 

I know this firsthand. My brother and I both grew up with childhood asthma. I know what it is like to worry more about packing your inhaler than your homework. And I refuse to let my daughter live that same struggle.  

That’s why I introduced the Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act of 2023, to allow the president to declare a “smoke emergency” when wildfire smoke creates hazardous air quality conditions.  

An emergency declaration would authorize federal agencies like FEMA to provide emergency assistance to states and local communities such as establishing smoke shelters, assisting with relocation efforts, and installing emergency smoke monitors.

It would also authorize the Small Business Administration to provide financial relief to businesses affected by wildfire smoke to help cover lost revenue. Workers lose an average of $125 billion a year in wages due to wildfire smoke. 

The rest of the country got a glimpse of what families on the West Coast experience on a yearly basis after smoke from Canada’s wildfires drifted south early this summer. My hope is that it opens the eyes of politicians in D.C. to the true danger, massive cost, and wide-reaching health crisis created by wildfire smoke. 

We need to pass the Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act of 2023 and Sen. Jeff Merkley’s (D-Ore.) companion bill in the Senate before the next wildfire season blankets our cities and neighborhoods in more deadly smoke. 

Josh Harder represents California’s 9th District. 

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