Effort to reduce harmful effects of brush pile fires
By Marcy Stamper
Even when conditions are wet enough to burn brush piles safely, the tiny particles in smoke are not safe, creating air pollution that can be particularly persistent from October through March.
“Poor air quality affects all of us, but children, the elderly, and those with breathing problems can be most harmed,” said Liz Walker, head of the Methow Valley Clean Air Project.
As part of its efforts to reduce those impacts, the clean air project is offering a free program to collect vegetation as an alternative to burning it.
Funded by a $1,500 grant from the Washington Department of Ecology’s Waste 2 Resources program, the vegetation drive aims to eliminate 50 to 60 burn piles, which produce an estimated 500 to 600 hours of smoke pollution, according to the clean air group.
With so many people clearing brush in Firewise programs, Ecology wanted to offer an alternative to burning, according to Jay Carmony, the smoke management team lead for Ecology’s central region.
With brush piles are so wet from recent rains, they would produce even more smoke if burned, said Raleigh Bowden, one of the founders of the clean air project.
The grant will allow them to collect one dumpster worth — up to 30 cubic yards (or up to 10 tons) — of vegetation at the Twisp transfer station. Okanogan County Solid Waste is providing space for the dumpster, said Carmony.
The grant will also pay for rental of the dumpster from WasteWise Methow, transportation to the landfill, and the tipping fee.
The vegetation will be combined with other trash. While it will decompose more quickly, it doesn’t provide a particular benefit to the landfill, according to Gary George, the solid waste manager. The landfill is required by law to apply an approved daily cover.
The U.S. Forest Service monitors air quality in Twisp and Winthrop. The Twisp readings show intermittent smoke issues, said Carmony.
Soot particles are so small that they’re not trapped by the body’s normal filters in the nose and throat, so they lodge in the lungs, said Carmony. In addition to acute health effects in people with asthma and other respiratory conditions, soot is a known carcinogen, he said.
Twisp and Winthrop — and much of Okanogan County — have had more days with unhealthy air over the past two years, from summer wildfires, burning of brush piles in fall and winter, and from wood stoves with poor combustion, said Carmony. Readings in Twisp are worse than in Winthrop, but Omak has an even more serious problem with fine particulates, he said.
The cities of Omak and Okanogan pay for their own collection of leaves and yard waste, which also go to the landfill, said George. The Methow clean air project is unique because it is driven by community groups and volunteers, said Carmony.
Statistics collected during the drive will help determine if the program can be sustained — or even increased — in the future. The clean air project has an overall long-term goal of cutting the number of bad-air days in the winter in half.
The clean air project looked into chipping the brush, but that proved too expensive, said Bowden. On the other hand, because it is not being chipped, this is a perfect opportunity to get rid of weeds, she said.
The clean air project started last year. During the winter, volunteers erected two sandwich boards that were updated daily with color-coded labels showing air quality and whether there was a burn ban. The project also offers a free app for iPhones that gives real-time readings of air quality and burn-ban status.
The clean air project is adding a third sign this winter. Signs will be located at TwispWorks and near the Mazama junction. They are making arrangements for a third sign in Carlton.
Ecology imposes winter burn bans when unhealthy smoke particles become trapped in the air during an inversion, which typically occurs when it is cold and clear with little wind. When moist, maritime air moves into the area, it creates problems by keeping the layer of smoke closer to the ground, said Bowden.
In addition to the Ecology grant, the vegetation drive is supported by the Methow Valley Citizens Council, WasteWise Methow and Methow Valley Long Term Recovery.
Take your brush piles to the dump
People can bring grass, bark, weeds, leaves, brush, branches and small trees to the transfer station in Twisp. Leaves should be bagged and trees should be less than 6 inches in diameter.
The clean air project hopes to have volunteers to help people load the vegetation into the dumpster, but people should be prepared to do that on their own.
The loads cannot contain garbage, cardboard, lumber scraps or construction debris.
The dates for free drop-off at the Twisp transfer station are:
• Saturday, Oct. 29, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
• Tuesday, Nov. 1, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
• Thursday, Nov. 3, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
• Saturday, Nov. 5, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
If the dumpster fills up, the clean air project will get word out to the community.
For more information, contact Liz Walker at (520) 907-7868.