Groups urge FEMA to recognize extreme heat, wildfire smoke as a ‘major disaster’

A coalition of environmental, labor and health care groups called on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to classify extreme heat and wildfire smoke as “major disasters” to unlock federal funding for states during these weather events.

The petition, filed Monday by dozens of groups across several states, seeks to assist states and local regions struggling to financially recover from the surge of extreme heat and wildfire smoke amid climate change.

“It’s urgent that FEMA treats intensifying heat waves and wildfire smoke as the major climate disasters they are,” Jean Su, energy justice director and senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, the petition’s lead author, said in a statement. “It’s past time for FEMA to address the climate emergency head-on.”

Should FEMA include extreme heat and wildfire smoke in the regulatory category of a “major disaster,” funding could be given to state, local and tribal governments for community solar and storage, cooling centers, air filtration systems and community resilience hubs, the petition says.

Last year marked the hottest year ever recorded, with average land and ocean temperatures reaching 2.12 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration confirmed earlier this year.

Experts predict the extreme heat, fueled by climate change, will likely continue to some extent in the coming years.

The Center for Biological Diversity, the environmental group and lead author on the petition, pointed to a National Weather Service statistic that found heat is the leading disaster-related killer in the U.S. and has killed more individuals than hurricanes, tornadoes and floods combined.

As for wildfires, the average U.S. resident breathed in more wildfire smoke in 2023 than in any year since 2006, the Center for Biological Diversity said.

The AFL-CIO, one of the petition’s signatories, pointed to the need for more labor protections for those called in to assist with these weather events.

“Too many workers are exposed to extreme heat and wildfire smoke on the job without adequate safety measures in place. Not only do we need to develop strong worker protection standards to meet the demand of the changing environment and intensifying climate disasters, we need the federal government to take action now to release resources,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement.

The Hill reached out to FEMA for further comment.

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