Smoke is a fact of life in the Northern Rockies. Whether from a wildfire, agricultural burn, or a prescribed burn designed to reduce wildfire risk, protect ecosystems or improve wildlife habitat, smoke will affect most of us at some point during the year. There are a number of programs in place with the main objective to minimize smoke impacts from prescribed burning and maintain fire as a necessary management tool. In Idaho, the Idaho/Montana Airshed Group is one organization that has a successful history of minimizing the negative impact of smoke on the public and environment while accomplishing various land management objectives (ID/MT Airshed Group website).
However, the Airshed Group and its members are facing some difficult times ahead due to smoke and air quality. Federal and state land managers are attempting to reintroduce fire into ecosystems where fires have been suppressed for decades. This will result in a significant increase in the number of acres scheduled each year for prescribed burns, i.e. more smoke. At the same time, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is reviewing the existing National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for particulate matter (PM) which are designed to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety. Based on past trends, the review process will produce new standards that are more stringent than the existing standards, i.e. less smoke!
Smoke is composed of particulate matter, gases and water vapor. One of the biggest health concerns comes from particulate matter, especially the fine particles associated with combustion processes. Numerous scientific studies have shown that increases in fine particle pollution are linked to increased health problems including heart and lung diseases. PM is characterized primarily by the size of the particle and smoke particles are primarily in the fine size range.
The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) monitors for fine PM at various locations in north Idaho. Several years of monitoring have produced a data set that demonstrates that these communities are in compliance with the existing fine PM NAAQS. This is the good news! As most people know, Idaho enjoys relatively clean air throughout the year compared to other parts of the country.
The bad news is that the same air quality data may limit a substantial increase in smoke production from more prescribed burning, especially in the late fall burn season. With state and local fire safety restrictions in place usually until late October, land managers are faced with a fairly short time window to complete their burn plans. Bad years with high fire danger and lots of wildfires can further delay prescribed burns. When the fall burn season does finally ‘open up’, poor weather conditions such as stagnant high-pressure systems or strong inversions can limit burning opportunities, especially for those land managers participating in the smoke management programs. Individuals that do burn under these conditions can contribute to a buildup of smoke that results in hazy conditions with increased PM2.5 concentrations. Without changes in current practices, poor air quality combined with more restrictive standards will create some major obstacles to completing land management goals for increased fire activity.
Alternatives to burning do exist and some of the land managers such as Plum Creek in Montana are employing non-burning techniques to accomplish their goals. While non-thermal disposal and treatment techniques are not applicable to all land management needs and situations, there are opportunities, especially for smaller landowners adjacent to urban areas, to pursue alternatives to burning. Incentives are needed to increase the use of alternative methods to reduce the burden on the airsheds during the late fall. The ‘recreational’ backyard residential burners will need more outreach and public awareness to change from traditional practices. Other options are to limit burning to only certain times of the year when weather and air quality are not limiting factors.
Finding the right combination of economic and social incentives to address this looming problem is a challenge. Working together, we can find the best solutions for Idaho while maintaining healthy forests, healthy communities and protecting public health.
For more information about the Idaho/Montana Airshed Group, go to www.smokemu.org . For more information about air quality in Idaho, go to www.deq.state.id.us.