Clean Air and Prescribed Burning

Last week I spent a day on a field trip with some conservation NGO interns. The ranger had asked them to think about a question:

On the watershed for an important Colorado water supply, prescribed burning would lead to a better situation to protect from wildfires that degrade water quality. Yet air quality requirements make it difficult to do prescribed burning. Mechanical treatments would not release particulates, but without a timber industry we can’t afford mechanical treatments. We know there is a trade-off between prescribed fire particulates and, ultimately, wildfire particulates (greater in quantity). Wildfires can have greater negative effects on both watersheds and soil and vegetation carbon, compared to prescribed burns. So how do we negotiate the apparently contradictory requirements of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act?

It was a great question, and I was very impressed with the thoughtfulness and expertise of our FS employees (as I usually am :)), as I think were the interns.

So here are my additional wonkish questions. Is that tension between air quality and prescribed burning an equal problem in all the western states? Why can southern states have so much (comparatively) prescribed burning- are the reasons environmental or social or some combination?

7 thoughts on “Clean Air and Prescribed Burning”

  1. I think a lot of the air quality issues come from the topogrpahy of the west. Smoke often get channeled through the valley areas and concentrates there. In other areas where it stays more diffuse. I live in Flagstaff AZ, where the community has grown quite familiar and mainly acepting of the with smoke that comes with prescribed burns. We’ve also seen the difference between the smoke from wildfires and prescribed burning and most folks would choose the latter if there is a choice…

  2. I was interested in your question about controlled burns. As the widow of a professional forest (with a degree in microbiology) I developed deep respect for the “old Forest Service,” and was extremely familiar with Region 2 fire while my husband spent over 30 years on the regional fire overhead teams (over and above his career positions.) Since all of our assignments were in Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska I came to know many professional forester with experience in the Rocky Mountains
    and national grasslands. It occurs to me that controlled burns in these areas (as opposed to such areas in the east and south) have a lot of issues with comparable levels of humidity, sudden weather changes involving erratic wind conditions and perhaps, the low moisture content of timber, undergrowth, and grasses. It seems to me that we have far fewer “safe days” for managed fires. You have an excellent site!

  3. So how do we negotiate the apparently contradictory requirements of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act?

    In the South, burns have to be approved by the smoke management entity in each state. If weather conditions are inappropriate or the smoke allocation is already used up, then a given burn on a given day may not be approved. If it is approved, then it meets the requirements of the Clean Air Act as implemented by each state. How does the process work in Colorado?

  4. Here in California, Sierra Pacific often gets waivers for doing their annual burning projects, while the Forest Service never operates on “no burn days”. The windows for accomplishing burning projects continues to get smaller. Often times, those fire folks are working fall fires in SoCal or Florida, and burning projects are pushed back, yet another year. There are no longer timbers folks to jump in and help do the burning, either. It is clear that a comprehensive suite of tools need to be applied, and that “desired future conditions” continue to not be seen (unless you are a preservationist).

  5. Hmm. Foto, but even preservationists like prescribed burning. doesn’t it seem odd that something that everyone agrees is good would have some kind of systemic problem associated with doing it? Other than not enough money…


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