Updated Jun 13, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Western lawmakers spot opening in smoke crisis

Illustration of a fountain pen with fire and smoke trailing behind it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Western lawmakers whose constituencies have long dealt with wildfires are using last week’s smoke crisis to propel new legislation, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The smoke that enveloped much of the northeastern United States revealed to some in Congress that climate change is turning what was once a regional problem into a national one.

  • "For the first time, non-western members are proactively engaging us on wildfire policy," Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) told Axios in a statement.
  • “Coloradans are all too familiar with the wildfire smoke that engulfed communities across the East Coast last week – it’s a reality that we have long dealt with in our state and across the West," Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said in a statement.

Driving the news: Peters, Bennet and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) plan to introduce legislation to help establish public clean air centers and distribute air filtration units to certain households in areas affected by wildfires.

  • The Cleaner Air Spaces Act, a copy of which was obtained by Axios, directs the Environmental Protection Agency to provide grants of up to $3 million to state and local air pollution agencies and community organizations.
  • Each cleaner air program would be required to provide a minimum of 1,000 filtration units to low-income households with vulnerable residents.
  • The programs would also be required to provide educational materials on setting up clean air rooms and to advertise the public centers during wildfires.

By the numbers: Among the bill's 11 House co-sponsors are several East Coasters: Reps. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) and Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), as well as a Midwesterner: Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.).

  • The bill's Senate co-sponsors include Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

The legislation is just one of a raft of wildfire and forest management-focused bills being pushed in the wake of the smoke crisis, Axios Pro reports.

  • The Republican-led House Natural Resources Committee is marking up two bills on Tuesday aimed at improving forest management – reducing the amount of brush that serves as fuel for the blazes.
  • Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) is also reintroducing legislation aimed at strengthening local wildfire evacuation and resilience planning.

Zoom in: Wildfire smoke from Canada last week shattered poor air quality records throughout the Northeast, affecting 60 million Americans.

  • Among the affected cities were New York and Washington, D.C., the nation’s centers of finance, media and government.

Zoom out: The West has seen a marked increase in the area burned by wildfires in recent decades due in large part to the effects of climate change, which has caused a dangerous combination of higher temperatures, lower humidity and high winds to occur more frequently.

  • That dynamic is impacting other parts of the country: The National Interagency Fire Center's four-month fire risk forecast highlighted the Great Lakes and Northeast as having an above average likelihood of large wildfires this summer.

What we're watching: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who previously collaborated with Peters on wildfire-focused legislation, will be the key to whether this bill gets a vote in the House.

  • Peters is projecting optimism: "I think you will see a big push going forward on bills like this to deal with the consequences of fires and on commonsense bipartisan forest management solutions," he said.
  • McCarthy's office did not respond to a request for comment.

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Axios' Andrew Freedman contributed to this story.

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