June 3, 2022

Senators push for more funding for wildfire smoke monitoring

USDA Forest Service

The western United States has experienced some of the largest fires in recorded history in recent years and the smoke from those blazes has impacted human health and the environment. Now politicians from several of the states impacted by the fires are pushing for increased funding for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to monitor wildfire smoke.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat from New Mexico, joined five other Democratic senators representing California and Arizona in urging the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies to increase the funding by $20 million to allow for a more equitable deployment of monitoring equipment.

These senators sent a letter to the committee’s leaders.

“The President’s Budget requests $12.7 million for the EPA to improve communications related to wildfires and air quality and to expand local smoke monitoring capacity. However, as we continue to experience historic fire activity and resulting wildfire smoke across the western United States, we must ensure equitable monitoring for all communities. Therefore, we urge you to provide $20 million for this important work, and we ask that you include report language to increase equity and ensure that new monitors are placed in new areas that do not currently have adequate monitoring capabilities,” the letter states.

A fire and smoke map is available for the public to view at airnow.gov

The Black Fire, which is the second largest in state history, is now more than 262,000 acres and has, at times, led to hazardous air quality in the southwestern region of the state near the Gila National Forest. Meanwhile, the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire is the largest wildfire in state history, having charred more than 316,000 acres.

As the largest fires in New Mexico’s history are currently burning, the AirNow map on Thursday showed areas like Datil that is impacted by the Black Fire having air that is unhealthy for all people and Peñasco, which is impacted by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, with air quality that is unhealthy for sensitive groups.

Other fires currently burning in New Mexico include the Foster Fire near Rodeo, which has burned more than 7,000 acres, and the Bear Trap Fire in Socorro County, which has burned more than 38,000 acres. The Cerro Pelado Fire, which has burned more than 45,000 acres in northern New Mexico, is now 95 percent contained.

Smoke from wildfires has been linked to pronounced increases in nitrogen emissions and also leads to increased particulate matter in the air. It is also linked to increased ozone levels. These  impacts on air quality can lead to respiratory problems.

The impacts can be more severe for some communities. For example, low-income communities with less insurance coverage can be more severely impacted by the wildfire smoke because they have less ability to receive the medical care needed in response to exposure.

“As wildfires become increasingly frequent and destructive, smoke will become an ever more present reality in our communities as well as those across the country,” the senators write in the conclusion of their letter. “It is critical that we be proactive in ensuring that our monitoring systems are well equipped to equitably protect public health from the hazardous effects of wildfire smoke.”