Wyden: FEMA should pay to shelter wildfire smoke refugees
Oregonians choking on the toxic fumes caused by blazing forests could use federal dollars to pay for emergency housing — if Sen. Ron Wyden has his way.
Government funding is already available when major disasters like floods and hurricanes force people out of their homes. Wyden's proposed legislation would expand that policy to include anyone fleeing the unhealthy air caused by a conflagration.
"All summer, smoke from wildfires in Oregon and across the West has forced senior citizens, the disabled, families with vulnerable children and others to flee their homes for a safe haven and a place where they could breathe decent air," Wyden said on Friday, Aug. 31.
"These are not your grandfather's fires, folks."
Introduced on Capitol Hill on Aug. 28, the Clean Air Refugee Assistance Act of 2018 would apply only after three consecutive days of unhealthy air ratings. Those seeking shelter would apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who would pay for temporary lodging at motels or other shelters on a case-by-case basis.
The bill does not have any co-sponsors.
Mike Caven of the Oregon State Firefighters Council union and Metropolitan Family Service CEO Judy Strand both spoke in favor of the bill during a press conference at Portland Fire Station No. 1, 55 S.W. Ash St. Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, an ER physician, said she had seen firsthand the "harsh health impacts" of wildfire smoke.
Officials say the average wildfire season is currently 100 days longer than it was in the 1970s. Most of southern Oregon reported unhealthy air during two-thirds of the last month.
When asked, Wyden admitted that FEMA has had both "some successes" and "less than shining moments" in its history.
"It's my job to do vigorous oversight over every single program," he said.