Denver Post Article on Prescribed Burning and Air Quality

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One of the great things about this business is that the issues pretty much stay the same over time. This is an interesting report and even-handed. That’s a lotta piles. Conceivably if we’d used the piles for energy (or anything else), we would have fewer particulates in the air. Good for health, good for the environment?

The above photo is from a discussion we had on the blog in 2011 here, where we talked about different states and their approaches. Anyway, note that, at least in Colorado, the issue has not been partisanized. All kinds of environmental, health, and social trade-offs form a complex landscape. Maybe because we also have natural gas, we are more used to dealing with trade-offs. Or maybe because of our new marijuana laws, we are too mellow to generate unnecessary partisan vitriol ;).

GOLDEN — Trying to prevent catastrophic wildfires, federal crews torched more than 40,000 piles of dead wood this past year in snow-laden Colorado forests.

And state health authorities may allow more controlled burns over broad areas. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has agreed to expand an experiment that relaxes smoke permitting so that burn crews can operate more freely.

While controlled fires that mimic natural cycles can protect communities and revive dying forests, they also produce smoke at potentially unhealthy levels, state air quality officials warned in a meeting last week.
Drip torch operator Chris Spivey of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does prescribed burning at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge on
Drip torch operator Chris Spivey of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does prescribed burning at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)

But forest managers are compelled to act because the 18,544 acres treated with controlled fire in 2013 still does not come close to the 1 million acres that the U.S. Forest Service recommends. For years, Forest Service experts have argued that state limits on open burning are shortsighted, shielding people who chose to live in woods from occasional smoke at the expense of long-term safety and ecological health.

Health officials said lawyers are reviewing how far the state can go in allowing more burns. On one hand, Colorado is obligated to clean its air to meet the national health standards. On the other, massive wildfires threaten watersheds and the people living near forests.

As firefighting agencies predicted a mild early wildfire season in the Rocky Mountain region, the top federal air quality overseer encouraged Colorado’s emerging approach.
The Fire Line

The Fire Line
Watch The Fire Line: Waldo Canyon, Black Forest and how wildfires are changing in Colorado and the American West

“You’re trying to do burns in smaller chunks, under favorable conditions, so that you avoid larger burns under unfavorable conditions,” said smoke management specialist Mike Broughton of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who monitors emissions from fires nationwide.

More of the controlled burns will boost both ecosystems and safety, Broughton said. “It makes it easier to keep a wildfire from becoming a massive wildfire.”

Recent CDPHE air tests found that even controlled burns on less than 50 acres produce particulate air pollution near homes at levels exceeding health standards. Average particulate levels reached 257 micrograms per cubic meter during recent burns, seven times higher than the 35-microgram federal standard.

“They are certainly troubling numbers. … We still have a responsibility to protect public health,” CDPHE smoke program leader Pat McLaughlin said.

However, the huge uncontrolled wildfires that increasingly plague Colorado also produce heavy smoke. The 215-square-mile Hayman fire led to 2002’s worst air quality in Denver even though it was burning 100 miles away. Smoke from the 2012 High Park and Waldo Canyon fires put particulates at 67 micrograms in Fort Collins and Colorado Springs — nearly as bad as Beijing.

Widespread burningThis winter, significant snow enabled widespread burning of timber slash piles. On the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest west of Boulder and Fort Collins, burn crews torched more than 22,000 piles in January and February, adding to a statewide 2013 total topping 40,000, officials said.

Rocky Mountain National Park crews, burning 6,500 piles since 2012, are on pace to eliminate a backlog, said Mike Lewelling, the park’s fire management officer.

But he and other forest managers say that, beyond pile burning and mechanical thinning, they’d like to be able to conduct more controlled burns over wide areas.

Since 2010, CDPHE has cut the number of smoke permits issued for nonpile controlled burns to 72, down from 140. The Colorado State Forest Service hasn’t done any controlled burns due to liability concerns after one in 2012 escaped boundaries and became the Lower North Fork fire, which killed three people.

A CDPHE experiment in greater flexibility began in November when air-quality officials issued customized smoke permits to federal foresters near Winter Park.

This allowed burning of 6,600 piles of dead wood over eight nonconsecutive days, including 1,800 on a single day, state air division spokesman Chris Dann said.

Local forest managers had the responsibility of conducting burns under wind, moisture and temperatures that minimized smoke.

Standard state permits limit open burning to 250 piles a day.

Custom permits now will be offered at other locations, state officials said. Forest managers must agree to install air-monitoring devices to measure smoke, positioned in places state air experts approve.

Forest Service Sulphur District Ranger Craig Magwire, who oversaw efforts to burn when wind was right to disperse smoke, said he got support from community leaders.

“If you’re burning more piles, you’re putting more particulate matter into the air. But people got the concept of what we are trying to do,” Magwire said. “They realize there will be short-term air impacts. But, in general, they understand the greater good.”

11 Comments

  1. Remember, though, that more than 90% of the Forest Service’s claimed prescribed burning totals come from the South. We do need to watch for that day when their fire folks start claiming Let-Burn fires as “burning goals” and “accomplishments”. Yes, we continue to see members of the public, in comments sections, advocating letting most fires burn.

    Hmmmmm, wouldn’t it be nice if we could show those folks the full costs of wildfires and the damages that they do, long term?

  2. While there is a world of difference between southeastern and western conditions, coastal plains forests in the SE show what how prescribe burns can be a routinely used tool in the foresters tool-box. Here on the Apalachicola N. F. in Florida we PBed an average of 94,700 acres each year during the past 10 year planning period. There are some complaints about air quality but down south “greening up the woods” each spring has been part of the culture that Smokey has never been able to change. The difference being that today, the “gummint” does the burning (mostly).

  3. Wait until someone discovers how much wildlife lives in those piles, and extrapolates some huge numbers from the number of piles burned. When piles are created, they quickly become habitat.

      • These are a couple of reasons I think broadcast burns are generally better treatments, for many areas, than piling and burning. Deeply burned and compacted soils are other reasons, along with unnecessary fossil fuel uses and relative manpower requirements.

        • Here in California, fuels are dealt with in different ways. Whole tree yarding brings all the logging slash into the landing, generating huge mountains of branches and tops. Stands end up with conditions ready for broadcast burning, with minimal additional work. Now, actually accomplishing significant amounts of broadcast burning is another issue, altogether. There is a lot of turnover in Forest Service fire suppression, and they spend most of their time training, instead of preparing prescribed burns. On roadside hazard tree projects, in the past, we’ve even required “removal” as the only slash option. One operator traded firewood (from cull hazard trees) in exchange for the labor-intensive slash work. In some cases, we could agree to pile a concentration of slash at a convenient spot, for burning. Our fuels folks really wanted to address the issue of fuels generated along roads.

          Just as clearcutting wasn’t that logical, especially in the lower half of the Sierra Nevada, broadcast burning isn’t easy to do, as well. Prescribed fires need to stay small and well-contained. Even with the reduced amounts of commercial thinning projects, the fire folks cannot, or will not be able to keep up. I guess we have to be content in knowing that thinning, alone, can help to mitigate fire dangers and increase resilience. Another issue for the Forest Service is the outright hostility of the State of California Air Resources Board. They routinely grant waivers for SPI to do burning on their timberlands, while still blocking Forest Service burning. The Forest Service has trouble doing burns in the winter, too, without their temporary employees available. They also seem to have an overwhelming disdain for less-than-optimal burning conditions.

        • California is not the only place where there’s too much fuel loading to do broadcast at least to start with.. and the idea that we’re going to be able to burn all those acres on a regular basis through time seems like a budget-buster to me.

          • The burning doesn’t need to be all conditions all the time. I would think in a practical sense we would want to focus on fuels continuity, break the chain in places so that fires are on a reasonable scale.
            I don’t have a problem with a less-than-optimal fire as long as it’s not so big that the aftermath overwhelms the available salvage and re-start resources.

  4. The not available permanent temporary fire fighter is bogus excuse. Those with that classification can be employed on a year around basis. They already get pension and health care benefits on an annual basis, and unemployment in the winter season. Put them to work. This government leisure class deal is not the intended outcome. Sure, having four or five months off with a small check and no health care worries is good for a young person with no community roots, but entitled fire mercenary creates the mindset of elitism that leads to tragedies. And, fuels don’t get burned. Focus. Government needs to focus. Evidently a tough concept in the scatter gun progressive liberal mindset that runs this country today. Reduce fuels by whatever pragmatic path is available.

    As long as there is no cost/loss accounting for wildland fire destruction, just a budget line item for Federal costs to suppress fire, the insanity of mega-burns will continue to escalate. The American voter needs to know the true cost of what is lost, on every fire. Somewhere, someday, there will be an accounting of ALL the costs, losses, due to a singular fire, of which suppression costs are but one item in the accounting. Until then, throwing darts at paper is what now passes for planning and accountability. Until then, there is no meaningful triage for wildland fire fighting resources and effort. No record from which to estimate potential outcomes and to determine the level of effort needed in suppression. Rotating administrative personnel is no path to empirical competence in dealing with fire. The locals will be supplanted by an overhead team with a template that will only work partially on any fire. One size fits all works for socks, but not always well for project fires. The same goes for fuel reduction attempts. Fuel reduction and fire history go hand in hand if they are to work.

    This is the United States of America. “It won’t work”, “we can’t afford it”, are no longer viable excuses. We can print money to pay our way to solutions, to success. We live that approach every day. If that is the direction to support food distribution, allocate housing, provide for education, assure medical care for all, it can surely work to protect the watersheds, the airsheds, the ability to sequester carbon in our public forests. Somehow, I don’t think tearing out a dam at the same time the watershed is allowed to be reduced to ash is what good public policy is all about.

    • Here in California, most of the crew members are temporaries, on 1039 appointments. That means they are limited to working 1039 hours in the employee’s work year. Yes, the engine captains and their assistants are “permanent seasonals”, and can work year round, if needed. However, with the continuous turnover in the Forest Service, due to better fire jobs in other agencies, jobs continue to be open, or filled with trainees.

      Yes, John, many of us have seen the many post-fire non-suppression costs and impacts, including damages that cannot be measured with dollars. The public does need to see all the impacts and costs, in a very transparent manner. That day does seem to be coming, John. Catastrophic wildfires are a big part of what some people consider “restoration” and “protection”. It is time to put price tags on those forms of “whatever happens”.

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