OR congressional delegation asks for rapid approval of fire, smoke disaster relief

Oregon’s congressional delegation on Monday requested rapid approval of Gov. Kate Brown’s request for major disaster relief amid unprecedented wildfire damage across the state.

Republican Rep. Greg Walden met with President Trump Monday and spoke with him about the Oregon fires.

Walden also shared with the President pictures he took of the devastation in southern Oregon. Over the weekend, Walden was in southern Oregon touring the damage from fires, meeting with local officials, and speaking with volunteers and displaced Oregonians.

“This year, more than 1 million acres of land in Oregon have been burned, and at least ten Oregonians have tragically lost their lives to the fires, with the death toll expected to increase. For comparison, an average total area of approximately 500,000 acres have burned each year of the last decade during a typical fire season,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to the president.

Oregon’s congressional delegation united last week to push for White House approval of the state’s request for federal disaster funding.

The request was approved roughly a day later, providing critical FEMA assistance to support Oregon communities and first responders.

Since Brown’s original request was made, the death toll has climbed, entire communities have been destroyed, hazardous smoke has blanketed much of the state, and firefighters have continued to struggle to contain blazes.

“Governor Brown has determined that the severity of the wildfires is beyond the capabilities of the State. The number and scale of fires burning across Oregon’s landscape at the moment are catastrophic and unprecedented, and urgent action is necessary,” the letter continued. “We thank you in advance for your expedited review and approval of the Governor’s request for a Major Disaster declaration.”

Also Monday, Oregon’s lawmakers in Washington urged Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar to declare the wildfires in Oregon a public health emergency—a move that better equips the state to respond to the disaster by freeing up resources and granting much-needed administrative flexibility.

“Air quality and smoke produced by the wildfires present a significant health threat for individuals with underlying health conditions such as asthma or lung conditions, and threaten to make the COVID-19 pandemic worse. Over the last several days, air quality across Oregon has ranked among the worst in the world and even maxed out the scale used by the Environmental Protection Agency to measure hazardous air quality. Right now, 10 percent of all hospital admissions in the state are asthma related,” the lawmakers wrote.

In addition, the Oregon members are requesting that the secretary modify critical waivers for Medicare, Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule requirements to give patients and providers the greatest flexibility in meeting the dual emergency health needs of the wildfires and COVID-19, among other critical steps.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that smoke can make individuals more prone to respiratory diseases, including the coronavirus. And while in other years Oregonians could go to their local libraries or other large indoor public spaces to be in cleaner and cooler air, many of those spaces are currently closed due to the pandemic. Wildfire evacuation protocols have challenged those who are in isolation or quarantine due to a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, exposure to the virus, or clinical COVID-19 symptoms,” the lawmakers continued.

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