A lot of people have their eyes on the skies right now, keeping a sharp lookout for wildfire smoke. Although cooler weather has meant that the 2019 wildfire season has gotten off to a thankfully slow start, the widespread drought in Washington and climbing temperatures mean that a major blaze could come at any time.
Despite the best efforts of firefighters, we can’t always control the amount of smoke we get from summer blazes. With that in mind, it makes a ton of sense to limit all of the other sources of smoke that we are exposed to. In winter, that may mean burn bans, or encouraging people to use either low-emission, modern woodstoves or switch to other forms of heating. In the spring and summer, limiting smoke means reducing the amount of green waste and slash being burned, and providing other ways for communities to dispose of this material.
What’s wrong with burning green waste? Although burning green waste — tree limbs, bushes, yard trimmings and similar material — is illegal in urban areas throughout Washington, it is legal and fairly common in many rural areas. The advantage of burning is that it’s cheap and simple. The disadvantage? One, it’s dangerous — “controlled” fires that get out of control are the number one cause of wildfires in Washington. And, two, burning waste produces lots of smoke — often in the very communities that are already being hit the hardest by wildfire smoke.
“Burning is thought of as a cheap and easy way out, but it’s risky and it means putting more smoke into the air and into people’s lungs,” said Sean Hopkins, Ecology’s smoke management lead for Central Washington. “Our communities are already exposed to far too much smoke — we need to do everything we can to protect air quality.”
For years, the Department of Ecology’s Air Quality program has been working with local communities to make safer alternatives to burning more affordable and more accessible.
Over the past four years, Ecology has provided communities in North Central Washington — the part of our state that experiences the most wildfire smoke — with more than $200,000 to collect green waste and chip it, allowing the material to be composted or disposed of in other ways.
A recent Ecology-funded project with the Lake Wenatchee Fire and Rescue District is a good example of how this works. Ecology provided Lake Wenatchee with a $50,000 grant to buy a commercial-sized wood chipper and then hold a series of free chipping events in the Lake Wenatchee and Plain communities.
Residents only needed to stack up their brush and limbs next to the road — up to 10 cubic yards per household. Fire district crews towed the chipper along the road and chipped as they went.
By the end of June, fire district collected and chipped more than 14 dump truck loads of brush.
Burning that material would have put nearly a ton of particulate pollution into the air. Thankfully, with the chipper in hand, the fire district will be able to hold more chipping events in the future.
In the past year, Ecology has also been working closely with Okanogan County’s Solid Waste Department. Okanogan faces a special challenge in getting rid of tree limbs and other green waste: The apple maggot.
The apple maggot threatens Washington’s famous apple orchards, and officials have put in strict limits on transporting homegrown fruit or tree limbs to prevent the spread of the pest. Because Okanogan County includes areas in both the quarantine zone and the pest-free area, that makes collecting green waste a challenge. With $85,000 in grants from Ecology, however, Okanogan was able to not only buy a wood chipper, but also build its own steam treatment unit.
Steaming the wood chips at high heat is the required method to kill any apple maggot larvae that might be present. This then allows the treated wood chips to be moved into pest-free areas for disposal. Steam treatment was one of the methods suggested in a 2018 report on managing waste disposal and the apple maggot problem by Ecology and the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
Okanogan County has purchased the chipper and just finished building the steam treatment unit. The county plans to put the new equipment to use later this year.
No matter what we do, smoke will always be with us in Washington. These projects in North Central Washington show us that there’s still a lot we can do to reduce smoke when we can and help our communities breathe easier.