The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Jean Su, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 770-3187,
Mia Jacobs, AFL-CIO, (202) 637-5018,
Christine Bolaños, Workers Defense Project, (512) 466-9258,
Will Humble, Arizona Public Health Association, (602) 538-9692,

FEMA Urged to Fund Disaster Response for Extreme Heat, Wildfire Smoke

Environmental, Labor, Health Groups Demand Disaster Relief Expansion to Address Climate Emergency

A multistate coalition of environmental, labor and health groups urged the Federal Emergency Management Agency today to unlock crucial disaster relief funding for extreme heat and wildfire smoke, both of which are not recognized by FEMA as major disasters.

“It’s urgent that FEMA treats intensifying heat waves and wildfire smoke as the major climate disasters they are,” said Jean Su, energy justice director and senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s past time for FEMA to address the climate emergency head-on. That means unlocking crucial funding for local governments to build robust and resilient solutions like community solar and storage, cooling centers and air filtration. That’s a critical way we can protect workers and vulnerable communities from the ravages of the climate emergency.”

Early summer temperatures have already broken records across the United States. A June heat dome affecting the West and beyond had Las Vegas reaching 111 degrees and Amarillo, Texas, reaching 103 degrees.

“The impact of the climate crisis coupled with the fact that Texas is the most dangerous state to work in makes the detrimental impact of heat and wildfire smoke an increasing threat for all Texans regardless of socioeconomic status,” said Margarita Del Cid, Workers Defense Dallas member-leader. “However, day laborers, the vast majority of whom are migrant and Latine, are especially vulnerable to exposure, illness, or even death. One construction worker dies every three days in Texas and a huge factor in these deaths is heat; whether it's heat stroke or hyperthermia or in some cases, prolonged illness that can affect eyesight and quality of life. Additionally, communities of color including Latines, generally reside in areas that are more susceptible to the effect of wildfire smoke that can lead to life-threatening illness such as asthma, bronchitis, and even affect the brain's function. A federal standard to qualify heat and wildfire smoke as a major disaster will make way for life-saving and proactive resources and support in these vulnerable communities and areas.”

Scientists deemed 2023 the hottest year on record and anticipate even more severe heat waves for 2024. In 2023 an estimated 2,300 people died from heat-related illness, and a record number of 130 million Americans were under heat alerts. Heat is the leading disaster-related killer in the United States, killing more people than hurricanes, floods and tornadoes combined, according to the National Weather Service. In 2023 nearly 650 people died of heat-related causes in Maricopa County, Arizona, alone — a 52% increase over 2022.

Meanwhile, communities are breathing in unhealthy levels of smoke as wildfires grow in frequency and intensity. The average U.S. resident in 2023 breathed in more wildfire smoke than in any year since 2006.

“After the hottest year on record in 2023 and new heat records broken already this year, it is clear that labor protections aren’t keeping up with the escalation of the climate crisis,” said Liz Shuler, president of AFL-CIO. “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. The AFL-CIO calls on FEMA to swiftly classify heat and wildfires as ‘major disasters’ under the Stafford Act to ensure workers and their communities — especially marginalized communities — have the resources they need to prepare for and respond to the ongoing threats of climate change. FEMA has the power to save lives — and we urge them to use that power to meet this emergency with the urgency it deserves.”

“Climate change is fueling more frequent and extreme wildland fires and heat emergencies in Arizona,” said Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association. “Wildfire smoke and heat are a major health burden that last year resulted in hundreds of deaths. State and local communities have been stepping up their preparation to deal with these threats but it's not enough. Adding heat and wildfire smoke emergencies to the list of FEMA-covered declared disasters will help Arizona communities better plan for these increasingly common events.”

FEMA is empowered by the Stafford Act, a federal law that governs disaster relief, to declare a major disaster and unlock disaster relief funding upon a request from a state, local or Tribal official. However, FEMA has declined to recognize extreme heat and wildfire smoke as qualifying “major disasters” under the Stafford Act. During COVID-19, FEMA quickly acted to use the Stafford Act for pandemic response.

Today’s rulemaking petition asks FEMA to include extreme heat and wildfire smoke in the regulatory definition of a “major disaster.” This would allow FEMA to make crucial funding available for state, local and Tribal governments to invest in community solar and storage, cooling centers, community resilience hubs, worker protections, air filtration systems and other ways to prepare for and respond to extreme heat and wildfire smoke that impact human health.

At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature — to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive.

(520) 623-5252