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Wyden Seeks Disaster Aid For ‘Clean Air Refugees’

Liam Moriarty/JPR News
At a press conference in Medford Thursday, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden announces his new bill to help people displaced by wildfire smoke. He's flanked by Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer (L) and Dr. Justin Adams of La Clinica.

Many residents of southern Oregon and northern California are into their seventh week of poor air quality. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden is proposing a bill that would help people pay for temporary housing to escape unhealthy air from wildfire smoke. 

The National Weather Service has calculated that -- as of August 30th – Medford has had Air Quality Index readings in the “Unhealthy” range or worse on 24 days so far this year. That’s compared to 15 days last year, and 12 days in 2015

At a press conference in Medford Thursday morning, Ron Wyden says the wildfires causing all that smoke ought to be treated like natural disasters.

"Clean air refugees deserve the same consideration as other disaster victims forced to seek temporary shelter."

The measure would extend to people displaced by unhealthy air the same federal assistance available to victims of floods and hurricanes. Under the bill, people could qualify for temporary relocation grants if they live in an area with air rated “Unhealthy” for three days or more, due to a wildfire declared to be an emergency by the president or state governor.

Dr. Jim Shames – the medical director for Jackson County Health and Human Services – says smoke air more just than a nuisance;  it’s a serious health danger, especially for children, the elderly and those with respiratory and heart conditions. 

"Today’s air, if you were out in it all day, would be the equivalent of smoking five cigarettes a day," he said at the Thursday morning event. "We’ve had days this summer where it was the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day."

That’s led Shames and other local health care providers to support the bill.

Wyden says he hopes to gather bipartisan support for the measure.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.