We need federal leadership on wildfire and smoke safety

Christopher Michel (Flickr)

In the last few weeks, the Midwest and East Coast have faced a reality the West has experienced for years: thick, sticky, and hazardous wildfire smoke settling into cities and millions of people’s lungs; cancelled school days, flights, and sports events; thousands of people becoming sick. And all against the backdrop of foreboding orange skies, like we experienced here in Northern California in September 2020.

Wildfire smoke goes where the wind blows, disregarding geographic boundaries, crossing the “aisle,” and affecting everyone—but it disproportionately impacts pregnant women, people with respiratory health issues like asthma, and older, and very young people. All climate change events—including extreme heat, flooding, and superstorms—take a deadly toll, with the brunt of the impacts on vulnerable and low-income communities. But wildfire smoke is especially deadly. Worldwide, over 7 million people die each year from air pollution; wildfire smoke alone is estimated to kill over 30,000 people annually. While regulations have helped to reduce pollution from cars and some industrial sources, wildfire smoke is getting worse.

Here in California, after years of record-breaking wildfire seasons, we are acutely aware of the need for increased wildfire preparedness efforts. Our ecosystems evolved with natural fire and cultural burning, so we are scaling-up the use of controlled fire to restore landscapes that are more fire-resilient when unplanned ignitions occur. But it is now abundantly clear that both here in the West and across the country, we need to do more to help people live with wildfire smoke, whether it’s low-level smoke from the increased use of beneficial fire or lethal levels from catastrophic fire. The U.S. federal government needs to take urgent action to:

  • Significantly increase federal funding for wildfire and smoke resilience. The U.S. as a whole needs to invest a minimum of $15 billion annually for at least ten years.This includes funding public health agencies to be proactive partners in researching and mitigating the impacts of smoke. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) need dedicated staff to address wildfire smoke. While the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act provided unprecedented funding to address the backlog of wildfire resilience work created by a century of fire suppression policy, a one-time investment, almost all of which is dedicated to land management, cannot solve the problem or make people safer within short order.
  • Better coordinate EPA and other federal agencies’ actions to address smoke, as recommended in a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report. As hazardous air quality from wildfires worsens, we need a more proactive approach. In particular, the EPA needs to work with land management agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service to set wildfire risk reduction goals and tailor air quality guidance appropriately. We can no longer think of wildfire as an “exceptional” event in the West.
  • Deliver funding to communities with clear guidance and communications on how people can protect themselves, their families, and their homes from wildfire smoke. Right now, there is a confusing array of information about how to shelter from wildfire smoke and dozens of air filters on the market. We need clearer evidence-backed guidance, culturally relevant messaging, and equitable funding to support people to take action to protect themselves and their property. And we need safer work rules that help people limit their exposure to dangerous wildfire smoke, whether that’s classroom teachers who could benefit from better air filtration, or outdoor workers, who should be offered protective equipment, longer rests, and access to air quality information, among other safety measures.
  • Look to the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, which was created through the IIJA, for forthcoming recommendations this fall on wildland fire policy changes that Congress can make. The Commission has been informed by an impressive diversity of federal agency, state agency, tribal leaders, and non-governmental organizations and has been tasked with creating federal policy recommendations and strategies on ways to better prevent, manage, suppress, and recover from wildfires.

As we implement these strategies, we also need to double down on climate action. A warmer, drier atmosphere—caused by society’s exponentially increased burning of fossil fuels—is a key driver in increasing wildfire risk. We need a whole-of-government approach to invest in clean energy and industry, global partnerships, electrified transportation, conservation and biodiversity protection, working lands, and community-based climate resilience.

We cannot firefight our way out of this problem. The solutions we need today are broad: fire-resilient landscapes, fire-and-smoke-ready communities, climate action, and significant investment in all three. From coast to coast, we need the federal government to lead the way.