Climate Change, Economic Justice and Wildfires Collide

The West Continues to Burn Amidst a Pandemic and Heatwave

The current wildfire situation is changing so fast in Oregon, that I have updated this blog no less than four times. Wildfires continue to wreak havoc and destruction across the West. As I type, the sky is filled with smoke, and the sun is an eerie shade of fiery orange-red. Gov. Brown has declared a state of emergency and State Fire Marshal leadership has advised that Oregonians from areas across the state be prepared to evacuate at a moment’s notice. This is not a movie set during the apocalypse: this is our climate reality. 

As someone who grew up in California, I am used to the image of devastating wildfires. But Oregon’s wildfire season has just begun, and has been unprecedented, heartbreaking, devastating and deadly beyond my imagination. Our beautiful, forested, state has burned at a terrifying pace over the course of just a matter of days (over 940,950,000 acres so far). At the height of the crisis there were 46 active wildfires burning across Oregon (see this interactive wildfire map). Governor Kate Brown  declared a state of emergency, and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has issued a statewide air quality advisory due to harmful smoke from wildfires (click here to check air quality in your area and here for tips to protect yourself from wildfire smoke).

Climate scientists and policymakers alike are already making the connection to these unprecedented wildfires and climate change, which is increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires in Oregon and the rest of the West as summers get hotter, heatwaves get longer, droughts get more intense, and conditions get dryer. And sadly, 90% of Oregon’s fires this summer season have been anthropogenic- and therefore avoidable. 

Wildfire Smoke and Your Health

 Unfortunately, the dangers of wildfires are not limited to the physical destruction of the fires themselves. Wildfire smoke is very harmful to human and animal health. Smoke is made up of very small particles, gases and water vapor, with trace amounts of hazardous air pollutants. The most harmful particles are particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (also known as PM 2.5). Because these particles are smaller than the diameter of a human hair, they can even get into your bloodstream upon inhalation.

Health impacts of smoke inhalation include headaches, fainting, chest pain, coughing, difficulty breathing, irritated sinuses, asthma attacks, short-term asthma, long-term asthma, and other respiratory illnesses. In extreme cases, can cause asphyxiation which can lead to death.

 When air is hazy and polluted from smoke, those who are able should stay inside (click here for an affordable and easy way to build your own box fan air purifier), and those who cannot should wear an N95 or P100 respirator. If you have neither, wetting a bandanna and putting it over your nose and mouth should suffice as a temporary smoke filter.

An Unequal Burden

The ongoing wildfires have impacted the lives of Oregonians across the four corners of our state. However, they do not pose an equal threat to all. Frontline and essential workers are often most impacted by the socioeconomic, health, and emotional burdens  of wildfires, heatwaves and other extreme weather. First responders and cleanup crews who do not have the privilege of staying inside will face longer, more frequent, exhausting, and dangerous work as wildfires continue to rage. Farmworkers must continue to work outside in the heat and smoky haze out of economic necessity without the safety net of health insurance benefits or access to healthcare. And in some cases, when labor resources fall short, such as in California, inmates getting paid at $2 an hour must also risk their lives to assist with firefighting efforts, sometimes even making up the bulk of a firefighting crew.

Fleeing wildfire victims must also put themselves at risk by staying at a crowded indoor evacuation center. And vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, disabled, low income communities, and people with asthma will suffer more health effects from decreased air quality and increased susceptibilities to COVID-19.   

(Photo Credit: Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

Hindsight is 2020– but there’s still time to avoid the worst impacts

While wildfires themselves may be unpredictable, there are some important actions our leaders in government can take to lessen the risk and mitigate the harm, including by taking action on climate change and adequately funding our agencies responsible for managing forest readiness. Unfortunately, Republican legislators walked away from an opportunity to help mitigate wildfire risk not just once, but twice in just the past two years, when they denied a vote on both climate and wildfire funding legislation in the last 2020 legislative session.

While our 2020 fire season is already well under way, there are still opportunities for our state leaders to help mitigate future wildfire/climate and health impacts. Gov. Brown’s March 2020 executive order, the Oregon Climate Action Plan (OCAP), mandates sweeping action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate impacts in Oregon. Among its directives, OCAP directs the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) to produce a report on the public health impacts of climate change in Oregon, with particular emphasis on the risks faced by vulnerable populations.  

In 2019, Governor Kate Brown appointed a wildfire council to conduct research and make recommendations for Oregon’s needs during the upcoming wildfire season. The council recommended that the legislature provide roughly $200 million annually for the Oregon Department of Forestry’s readiness and preparedness budget. Yet the legislature has allotted just a fraction of that funding$55.6 million–for the 2020 wildfire season. By contrast, the 2019 budget for the City of Portland’s police department alone is $241.5 million. 

In order to sufficiently mitigate climate change and the worst wildfire impacts to our state, we must ensure that our natural resource agencies are adequately funded. OEC and our partners will continue advocating to secure the strongest possible climate policy outcomes from OCAP implementation. As part of this work, we will also push to ensure that the public health impacts from wildfires and other climate change impacts remain at the forefront of decision-making, and that adequate resources are invested to mitigate climate change impacts on our most vulnerable communities.   

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