In August 2018, wildfire smoke made Seattle’s skies so toxic that the Puget Sound Clean Air Authority urged everyone to stay indoors. As miserable as it was for those of us stuck inside, however, it was potentially fatal for the thousands experiencing housing insecurity.
Those who are unsheltered, with no place to escape skies choked with wildfire smoke, bear a large brunt of our wildfire crisis. A recent study of the connections between health and housing status found more than 8 in 10 homeless people suffer from at least one chronic health condition, and many of those are suffering from chronic respiratory problems.
Exposure to particulate matter in wildfire smoke has been associated with a wide range of damaging health effects. The particulates in this smoke make those breathing the air wheeze, cough, shorten their breath and experience sore eyes and throats, diminishing health and quality of life. Those with existing respiratory and cardiovascular problems feel these impacts even more acutely.
For a family with an asthmatic child, losing your home when the landlord sells it one summer could be a death sentence.
Other adverse health outcomes are more severe, including increases in asthma-related hospitalizations, chronic and acute respiratory and cardiovascular health problems and premature death. A study last year by the Veteran’s Administration found particulates in wildfire smoke can cause diabetes.
We must take drastic, immediate action to protect the vulnerable among us: those without housing, those living in poverty, disabled people or those with chronic illness and those without health care.
Seattle officials created five clean-air shelters last year to provide refuge on those smoky days. We applaud the city’s efforts to provide refuge. But this is a Band-Aid solution on a much deeper problem: the crisis of Washington’s unhealthy forests.
Due to climate change, diseases and insects, our forests have lost their natural wildfire resistance and become huge swaths of kindling. They are now a tinderbox, waiting for a spark to ignite huge wildfires that spread rapidly and pour smoke over our cities. A fire that might have burned 100 acres a couple decades ago now burns 100,000 acres.
That is why we are supporting House Bill 2413, which would create a new funding source solely dedicated to building a modern wildfire fighting force and restoring the health of our forests.
Through a surcharge of a few cents a month on property and casualty insurance policies, we can tackle our wildfire problem, protect our communities and limit the smoke that pours over our cities.
This affordable, long-overdue investment — about $1 a month for the average household — will raise $62.5 million per year to put into action plans designed by scientists and firefighters to restore the health of 1.25 million acres of forest and modernize our firefighting force.
It will also allow the state to provide communities and local fire districts with the funding they need to prevent wildfire damage and protect their vulnerable residents.
This plan has been endorsed by statewide health advocates like the American Lung Association, Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Union of Concerned Scientists, along with many others.
By creating a new fund for this problem, we are making that commitment without draining state tax dollars so desperately needed for schools, mental health and addiction facilities and housing.
Clean air is a human right. Attacking our wildfire crisis can ensure everyone in Washington receives that right.
Hilary Franz is Washington’s commissioner of public lands. Elected in 2016, she leads our state’s wildfire fighting force. Anna Zivarts is the program director for Rooted in Rights/Disability Rights Washington.
Read the full Feb. 19-26 issue.
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