USA — For many Flagstaff residents, the smell of wood smoke triggers memories of the 2010 Schultz fire.
Aside from memories, it can also generate itchy eyes and irritated lungs.
However, according to forest and fire officials, the same prescribed burns that may aggravate the community also prevent wildfires.
Although fire managers say prescribed burns are a necessity for healthy forests and for the minimization of wildfires, they also agree smoke is a major concern.
City of Flagstaff Wildland Fire Management Officer Paul Summerfelt said all of the fire and forest services in the area work to reduce the smoke’s impact on locals as much as possible.
“All of the land management agencies that do prescribed fire recognize that smoke does have a health impact,” Summerfelt said.
“I don’t want to downplay that or minimize that; it’s a real concern and it’s probably the single most … important, time-consuming aspect we focus on to help minimize that impact.”
However, Summerfelt said the forests will burn, regardless of whether it is natural or prescribed.
He noted it is less damaging if they burn under conditions dictated by the fire department rather than in the form of wildfires, which are destructive, costly and produce more smoke in the end.
MEETING FEDERAL STANDARDS
Not only is smoke a concern to them, but there are numerous provisions put in place by the government to prevent prescribed burns from letting off too much smoke.
Summerfelt said that before the fire department initiates a prescribed burn, it must look at the proximity of the burn site to groups that are vulnerable to smoke intake, such as a hospital or a school.
They also try to avoid conflicting with events happening in the community and coordinate with neighboring forests so they are not burning simultaneously.
Marcus Selig, the Arizona Forest Program Manager for the Grand Canyon Trust, said the Environmental Protection Agency, through the Clean Air Act, has specifications for air quality that, when violated, can get pricey.
The EPA dictates that no business or agency, whether it is a power plant or a national forest, is allowed to exceed designated pollutant levels, known as the National Ambient Air Quality Standards — daily limits on very fine particles as well as larger air pollutants.
FINE PARTICULATES HARMFUL
The EPA tightened its standards for very small air pollutants like smoke (particles 30 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair) in mid-December 2012, as part of a five-year review required under the Clean Air Act.
The new rules wouldn’t be enforced until 2020, and Coconino County already complies with the targets sought.
Southern California fails the EPA’s projected air test, however, and is often cited as one source of haze and fine air pollution over the Grand Canyon, for example.
The agency cited a pile of studies linking fine air pollutants to heart attacks, asthma, decreased lung function and premature death in changing the regulations.
“An extensive body of scientific evidence shows that long- and short-term exposures to fine particle pollution, also known as fine particulate matter … can cause premature death and harmful effects on the cardiovascular system, including increased hospital admissions and emergency department visits for heart attacks and strokes,” the EPA wrote in December.
Epidemiologic studies are key in how these rules are set, along with measures of impacts to the environment.
These standards are divided between what the EPA labels as Primary standards, which pay attention to public health protection, and Secondary standards, or concerns that are in the best interest of the public, such as road visibility and damage to animals, crops, vegetation and buildings.
“If you exceed (the air quality standards) three times in one year, you fall into what’s called ‘non-attainment,’ meaning you’re not achieving air quality standards,” Selig said. “When that happens, it’s very expensive. The government puts all kinds of controls on and you have all sorts of requirements you have to meet with the EPA because you’re no longer having clean enough air.
Northern Arizona is in attainment, meaning they are meeting all of their air quality standards.”
ALL BURNS COORDINATED
While northern Arizona has never violated the EPA requirements, Selig explained that meeting the standards could become more of a challenge in the near future due to tightening standards and the Four Forests Restoration Initiative’s (4FRI) plan to do more burning.
The EPA requirements are monitored by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), which provides agencies with paperwork they must fill out, including a form 14 days before the burn stating their intent, another one by 2 p.m. the day before the planned burn to describe the impact it is expected to have on the community, and then a final form submitted the day after confirming the burn was completed.
“We also have weekly smoke management conference calls with the ADEQ that involve all of the different agencies in the area, especially northern Arizona, that are burning or plan to burn in the upcoming week,” Summerfelt explained. “The Weather Service is involved in those calls to give us the weather forecast coming up … there’s a lot of that kind of behind the scenes stuff going on.”
SHIFT BURN SEASONS
Fire and forest agencies in the region have been increasing the number of controlled burns they perform, but according to Steve Gatewood, of the Greater Flagstaff Forest Partnership and a 4FRI collaborator, there is a purpose for it that he believes will benefit the community.
“One of the main things that were trying to do is get prescribed fire across the landscape so we can shift our burning season from fall and winter like we are doing now, up into spring and early summer,” Gatewood said.
In the winter, smoke tends to stay on the ground due to atmospheric conditions and flows down into the Verde Valley, causing visibility and health issues.
Local forests currently burn later in the year because the woods are not as dry, decreasing the risk of the controlled burn getting out of control.
“But once you get most parts of the landscape treated, you’ll be able to burn in different seasons and you’ll have much less smoke impact,” Gatewood said.
TURNING THE TIME BACK ON FORESTS
The goal is to bring forests back to their ecological roots, when “softer” fires burned regularly, nearly 130 years ago.
Before that time, the forests of the Southwest would burn freely and at a low intensity nearly every two or five years.
It was not until settlers arrived to the area in the late 1800s, when fires were suppressed.
The regular natural burns prevented fuel buildup such as dried pine needles or piles of twigs, so the burns were small, short and relatively harmless.
In fact, ponderosa pine trees in the Southwest are immune to low-density fires with their thick bark and actually thrive in them.
“What’s happened now is that because we have not allowed fires, the debris has piled up over a long period of time — the fuel inflation is so hot that when we do an additional burn on an area we get an extraordinary amount of smoke,” Summerfelt said.
“The key on that is not less burning; it’s actually more frequent burning. Because if we can get back to where we’re burning fairly frequent, we’re going to have far less smoke in the end.”
MOST ECONOMICALLY VIABLE
The results are starting to show, Summerfelt said. According to a study done by the city fire department, there is 50 percent less smoke emitted from prescribed burns in Flagstaff today than there was in the 1970s, and, in time, burning more frequently will most likely continue to decrease smoke output.
As the forest thins and fuel is less condensed and built up, the smoke particles will become smaller and therefore less jarring to the community.
Although there are alternatives to controlled burning, Summerfelt said it is the most economically viable.
“There’s a lot of practices that can help reduce debris or activity fuel, but the problem with that is those other activities, like chipping, are incredibly expensive,” Summerfelt said. “(With the cost of) one acre of chipping we could probably burn about five acres.”
AN EARLY WARNING SYSTEM
The city has multiple programs in place to accommodate people who are sensitive to smoke, such as contacting those who have requested to be notified before a burn takes place, and providing a call center for people to voice their concerns about a burn in their area.
In addition to notifying individuals, the fire department and the Forest Service inform local schools, assisted living and nursing homes, and hospitals.
One Flagstaff resident on that list is Lea Parker, who is highly allergic to wood-burning smoke.
“Both the U.S. Forest Service and the local fire department have me on their notification list for when and where prescribed burns will take place,” Parker said. “I do appreciate this, since I can then make sure I avoid smoky areas.”
In the end, Summerfelt sees prescribed burning as the remedy to wildfires.
“We’re actually racing against catastrophic fire because we’re seeing in the last couple of decades, historically, fires in both size, severity and cost, are way beyond anything we have historically seen,” Summerfelt said.
“We are essentially at the tipping point. We’re attempting to protect and restore our forests before we lose them to these huge fires.”