Our survey, “Dangerous air” prompts lawmakers to demand worker protection and investment in fire prevention

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State and federal lawmakers plan to introduce legislation and hold at least one review hearing in response to Dangerous air, a California Newsroom investigation, which showed smoke from wildfires in the west is suffocating large swathes of the country, from Los Angeles to Boston.

“This survey confirms what we have known for years: as forest fires become more frequent due to climate change, the health of our communities will suffer,” said Representative Ro Khanna (D-San Jose), who chairs the US House Oversight Subcommittee. on the environment, in a statement sent by email. “I will have a hearing on forest fires, smoke pollution and commercial logging practices that could make the problem worse. It’s a matter of public health, environmental justice, and Congress has no choice but to act. “

The investigation analyzed federal satellite images collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Produced in partnership with Stanford University Laboratory of Environmental Change and Human Outcomes, he revealed a surprising increase in the number of days residents were breathing smoke in America’s cities.

In San José, which Khanna represents, residents breathed smoke from forest fires on average 45 days a year between 2016 and 2020, the survey found, a 400 percent increase over the period between 2009 and 2013.

“We live and breathe the climate crisis”, tweeted Congressman Jason Crow (D- Colorado). He noted that our investigation showed that his suburban Denver district was “see an average of 2 more weeks of forest fire smoke per year – 14 more days of increased risk of asthma, respiratory illnesses and premature births.

Lawmakers on both sides said the investigation provided additional evidence for a comprehensive government response. They advocated for better management of forests, including prescribed burns, which experts say are key to stemming severe forest fires that send dangerous smoke into the skies. And there are proposals for the immediateincluding enhanced protections for workers and the creation of smoke-free shelters, where people with high health risks can escape the dangerous air.

In California, where residents are most affected, Congresswoman Luz Rivas, a Democrat from Los Angeles who chairs the Assembly’s natural resources committee, said she plans to present a legislative package to address the impacts of smoke from forest fires.

One area of ​​potential interest would be to increase protections for outdoor workers and standardize when schoolchildren are not allowed out for recess to avoid exposure to hazardous air. “Many of my constituents are worried about their children and the long term health effects,” she said.

Rivas’ proposal is one of many that seek to minimize the immediate health effects of widespread smoke, recognizing that it will take many years – and colossal sums – to tackle the root causes.

Forest management and climate change

The forests of the western United States are overgrown, filled with dry vegetation that fuels catastrophic fires. Last year, the Golden State had its most active wildfire season in history, with 4.3 million acres burned, nearly 10,500 structures damaged or destroyed and 33 fatalities. Over 2 million acres have burned so far this year.

Democrats and Republicans said the investigation showed more aggressive forest management was needed.

“The short and the long term [solutions] it comes down to managing the land where the fire breaks out, ”said Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican whose rural Northern California district includes areas where residents breathe smoke three months a year.

He says thinning forests has become more difficult due to increased regulation. Projects can take years due to lengthy environmental reviews and the bureaucratic approval process.

Forest management does not mean “clearcutting” or removing all trees, LaMalfa said, adding that he and other lawmakers have advocated for a variety of targeted management techniques, including forest thinning. and prescribed burning. The California Legislature passed bills this year to change liability laws and create a $ 20 million insurance liability fund to encourage more prescribed burns.

Low and moderate intensity fires are a natural part of the forest ecosystem. But a century of aggressive forest removal has put out these so-called “good fires”, leading to a dangerous build-up of undergrowth. Fire scientists say state and federal governments need to dramatically increase their forest management efforts.

On the government side, the ambition is there, but the execution is still slow. Last August, California reached an agreement with the US Forest Service to each perform fire prevention work on 500,000 acres per year in the state by 2025. The Forest Service remains well below that target, processing approximately 120,000 acres last year. Cal Fire was unable to provide updated figures on their progress towards the target.

Democrats are also calling for more aggressive action on climate change.

The Build Back Better Act – a $ 3.5 trillion, more than 2,000 page bill that reflects many of President Biden’s political priorities – includes several ambitious climate change proposals.

The legislation, currently under negotiation in Congress, includes a $ 150 billion program that would pay utility companies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is not clear whether this provision will appear in the final legislation, as it was pushed back by Senator Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat whose vote is considered crucial.

Fire scientists say climate change has paved the way for uncontrollable forest fires in recent years. LaMalfa, echoing some Republican colleagues, says prioritizing land management is “much better as this fight continues over what we’re going to do. [do about] climate change. ”Fire and climate experts argue that a long-term plan to tackle climate change is essential for fighting forest fires, in addition to forest management.

Protect essential workers

California state lawmakers passed legislation this year to protect farm workers from the growing dangers of wildfire smoke. And they’re looking to build on that in the next session.

Assembly Bill 73, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed last week, guarantees that the state’s stock of N95 masks is available to farm workers during severe smoke spells. It also requires employers to provide workers with training in the language they speak on the dangers posed by smoke from forest fires.

Democratic MP Robert Rivas, who represents nearly 100,000 farm workers, drafted the bill to “ensure that we do all we can to protect the health and safety of such a vulnerable working population.”

Rivas says employers were already required to provide masks to workers, but struggled to acquire an adequate PPE inventory.

In the next session, Rivas could revive the proposed requirements left out in the final bill. For example, a first version would have created “strike teams” deployed by the state to ensure employer compliance.

Congressman Jared Huffman, Democratic member of the US House special committee on the climate crisis, said it was time to start crafting policies for “refugee smokers” – for example, air shelters federally funded for residents who need a safe place to breathe.

“Almost like evacuation centers [on] one of those days when the air is just too bad to breathe, ”said Huffman, whose vast northern California district stretches from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border. “At least people who have fragile conditions, who may not have the means to have air conditioning or who do not have things in their house to protect them, can go to these places and have a quality air to breathe.

Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA), along with several other Democrats, introduced a bill this year that would allow the president to declare an “anti-smoking emergency.” The federal government could then help communities establish smoking shelters and relocate vulnerable populations.

Better data, public health monitoring

State and federal lawmakers have also said they need reliable and comprehensive data to take action.

“Data in this area is absolutely essential [to] understand the adverse health effects of smoke from forest fires, ”said Assembly member Rivas.

California Newsroom survey account on satellite images of the smoke plumes rather than on the air quality data itself, as the air monitoring stations operated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency are distributed inconsistently across the country, with many gaps in the rural and urban areas most affected by smoke from forest fires.

At the federal level, Senate Democrats introduced the “Law on planning and research on smoke”, which would set aside $ 20 million in research funding for the EPA to study the health effects of smoke and create a grant program to fund research efforts at the local level.

This year, the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 619, which requires the state’s Department of Public Health to develop safety guidelines for counties to implement during days that are hazardous to air quality. The invoice is on Newsom’s desk.


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