Burn Season Brings Concerns About Smoke

Flagstaff, AZ – Smoke is a mixture of particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and other components that can cause a number of respiratory problems especially for elderly people and children. Pulmonologists say children breathe up to 50 percent more air per pound of body weight than adults.

But in northern Arizona's forests, fire and smoke is inevitable.

SUMMERFELT: It's not a question of preventing smoke it's really a question of when and where and how long do we want to have smoke.

Paul Summerfelt is the fuel management officer for the Flagstaff Fire Department.

SUMMERFELT: Wildfires produce far more smoke. They do it for a much longer time and they have a far greater impact on a population than prescribed fire.

But northern Arizona residents haven't always understood that. People who live near the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest complained about prescribed burns before the Rodeo Chediski Fire.

The Coconino National Forest recently held a meeting to discuss how to notify people when smoke from prescribed fires may impact their neighborhood. Sara Mushro requested the meeting. She says she understands the importance of prescribed burns, but she would like better communication especially when the smoke reaches dangerous levels. Mushro would like smoke to be considered as dangerous as icy roads.

MUSHRO: Instead of saying there's so much snow on the roads we're asking you to stay at home, instead we say there's so much smoke we're asking you to remain inside you're home and close you're windows just let people know.

Prescribed fire specialists with the Coconino National Forest say they won't know how bad the smoke is until the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality checks their data. The ADEQ monitors the smoke level for wildfires and prescribed burns but it's slow to detect when smoke exceeds its clean air standards.

Last March the Coconino National Forest violated ADEQ's standards - its only violation on record. Fire managers say they didn't hear about it for two weeks.

Beale Monday, the prescribed fire and fuel specialist for the Peaks and Mormon Lake Ranger Districts, says they take many precautions before lighting a prescribed burn. He says weather is their primary concern. They burn in the fall and the spring when weather conditions are optimal.

MONDAY: We have to send what they call a burn request to ADEQ and ADEQ does modeling on how many acres we're going to do, the area we're going to do it, the drainage the smoke is going to flow, the night time ventilation the daytime ventilation for that day and the next day.

Then ADEQ decides whether or not to approve the burn. Even after approved, fire managers say sometimes the weather changes mid burn. That could potentially blow the smoke in a completely different direction than planned.

At the end of the meeting the forest service said it would consider notifying people of possible prescribed burns and their locations a week ahead of time, even though they have a chance of being canceled by ADEQ.

Kimbal Babcock is the emergency preparedness manager for the Coconino County Health Department. He says people need to do their own monitoring.

BABCOCK: If you can smell it, you're ok. If you can taste it, you're still ok. If it's impacting your visual, it's right in front of you, then you need to get inside.

In addition health experts suggest using the recirculation mode on the air conditioner in your home or car, using a HEPA filter to reduce smoke indoors and avoiding strenuous outdoor activity.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales.