Rodeo-Chediski evacuation

Show Low area residents drive east on US 60 away from the wall of smoke and flame of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002. Studies show that wildfires produce more and more dangerous smoke than prescribed fire.

WHITE MOUNTAINS — Bad news: Wildfire smoke contributes to 15,000 premature deaths every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Worse news: Expect 40,000 premature deaths per year by century’s end thanks to rising temperatures and bigger wildfires.

Wildfire smoke can cause heart attacks, asthma and lung disease, contributing to the toll of cigarettes, auto exhaust and emissions from coal-fired power plants. One study showed a 7 percent increase in heart attacks and a 2 percent increase in emergency room visits when wildfire smoke rolls into populated areas.

So does that mean the Forest Service’s plan to both repeatedly burn a million acres in Rim Country and the White Mountains will take a toll on human health?

For the past 100 years, the Forest Service devoted itself to putting out every single wildfire within 24 hours. Wildfires plunged and tree densities soared – from 50 per acre to maybe 1,000 per acre. As a result, much worse fires now appear inevitable.

Now it’s clear the forest will burn – one way or the other. Loggers can take all the big trees and cattle can eat all the grass – but the saplings and tons of downed wood on every acre will burn anyway.

Keep that in mind as we consider what to do about dangerous wildfire smoke.

That’s a lot of smoke

The US Forest Service wants to dramatically increase its use of controlled burns and managed fires to reduce the risk of town-destroying megafires. The just-released Rim Country Environmental Impact Statement for the second installment of the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI) proposes treating almost 1.2 million acres of oak, ponderosa pine and pinyon juniper forests in Rim Country and the White Mountains. Loggers would remove most of the trees between 12 and 18 inches in diameter. But the plan then calls for repeated controlled burns to get rid of the debris left from the thinning projects as well as decades of built-up duff and wood on the ground. Some 63,000 acres would be treated with controlled burns alone.

That’s a lot of smoke.

No doubt about it: Smoke causes health problems – especially for people with underlying heart and lung problems. Studies show a significant rise in emergency room visits and premature deaths when wildfire smoke blankets areas where people live. That’s why were supposed to stay inside or even use masks to filter the invisible soot on heavy smoke days.

But here’s the real question: Will controlled burns have less impact on human health than wildfires?

Answer: Wildfires are definitely worse, according to the EIS and multiple studies.

So here’s a related question: Can we reduce the impact of prescribed burns?

Definitely. But more on that at the end of this latest series on the 4FRI environmental analysis.

Why are controlled burns better?

So what’s the evidence smoke from controlled burns will do less harm than wildfires?

For starters, the environmental analysis concluded wildfires will produce about 5,000 pounds of smoke per acre. A less intense controlled burn will produce about 3,500 pounds per acre. That’s just an average – but it means wildfires produce 43 percent more smoke per acre burned than managed fires.

Moreover, the Forest Service does controlled burns in the cool, damp spring and fall. The rules consider wind direction and air quality. So they don’t burn when the wind will blow smoke into the most populated areas – or when an inversion layer will trap smoke close to the ground.

Finally, crown fires are far more likely to spread into neighborhoods and consume homes. The plastics, metals and other substances in house fires have far more health effects than simple wood smoke, according to studies.

Granted, people living in forested communities like Payson, Alpine and Show Low will still get a good dose of smoke from nearby controlled burns. But the bigger fires have a much larger health effect, because the smoke drifts into urban areas – with millions of people.

Wildfire smoke vs.

controlled burn smoke

Lots of studies have documented the serious health risks from major fires. Far fewer studies have specifically compared uncontrolled wildfires to controlled burns.

One such study looked at the impact of smoke from different sources on kids 7-8 years old in California. The Stanford University study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology did all sorts of tests on the immune systems and lung function of children exposed to smoke – including both big wildfires and controlled burns. The researchers compared those groups to children not exposed to smoke.

They found children exposed to wildfire smoke took in more pollutants, which had a bigger impact on their immune systems and allergy response. The children exposed to smoke from controlled burns faced a lower exposure and had less response, but still more than the kids who didn’t breath in smoke at all. The wildfires produced the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, elemental carbon, carbon monoxide and particulate matter.

The current California wildfires demonstrate the potential human health disaster posed by not reducing wildfires. The Kincade and Getty fires have consumed 80,000 acres, forced 200,000 evacuations and threatening 90,000 structures. A study by Carnegie Mellon University concluded wildfire smoke has played a role in the reversal of air pollution gains between 2016 and 2018 – although the rollback of federal air pollution regulations also contributed. The levels of fine particulates has risen by 12 percent, which statistically could result in additional 10,000 premature deaths – 40 percent of them in California, according to a report in High Country News.

A study by researchers from the University of California at Davis documented a big increase in emergency room and pharmacy visits during the 2018 wildfires in northern California that displaced 300,000 people.

However, another study by Carnegie Mellon University found little such impact from the 450,000-acre Mendocino Fire in 2018. That’s probably because the smoke didn’t drift into heavily populated areas or include chemicals from burning houses. That’s another argument suggesting controlled burns would have far less impact on human health than a rise in big wildfires.

Biomass electricity —

another kind of controlled burn

Can we do something about the smoke from prescribed burns as well?

That brings us back to the topic of burning biomass.

About half the material produced by thinning projects consists of scraps, downed wood, duff and saplings – all with no value to loggers. So far, the only way to make use of that roughly 30 tons of material per acre lies in hauling it to a biomass burning plant and turning it into electricity.

But doesn’t that just put all that smoke into the air from the biomass plant?

Not necessarily. The only biomass plant in Arizona — run by NovoPower in Snowflake — strips out about 90 percent of the chemicals and particulates in the smoke, said Brad Worsley, president of NovoPower.

That means burning biomass in a powerplant will remove tons of pollutants from the smoke of controlled burns after a thinning project.

And that could not only make the thinning projects economical, it could save lives.

However, the Arizona Corporation Commission recently decided not to require power companies to buy enough biomass-generated energy to support an estimated 50,000 acres of thinning projects annually.

The decision could cripple 4FRI. However, a narrow commission majority reasoned that electrical users in the Valley shouldn’t have to subsidize forest thinning efforts by paying an couple of dollars a month for electricity.

But hey – if the studies are right – this will give them a little extra money to cover the emergency room bill when the smoke of distant wildfires comes rolling into town.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

(14) comments

Mountain Dweller

Smoke kills. Your studies stated wildfire smoke is worse than controlled burns, but didn't take into account that controlled burns cause smoke for many months where a wildfire is a much shorter time frame. Now the FS proposes to drastically increase controlled burns, which equals more smoke deaths. This is insanity! Stop killing us with smoke, Cut and thin areas around towns to form a barrier. Chip the small stuff and use for mulch. There is no need to burn the forest and kill people. The studies show smoke from managed fires kills, so everytime the FS lights a controlled burns or let's a wildfire burn instead if putting it out, they are willfully and knowingly killing people. Now is the time for a class action lawsuits if the FS keeps these burn and willfully kill policies. Planned, premeditated fires causing death and suffering of people like we are a problem with no value instead of a human life. I am so appalled that any person could light that match when they know people will greatly suffer and some will die. All the proburn propaganda can't hide the fact that you are willfully killing people with each burn and you know it.

Bob Smith

Mountain dweller, what do you propose we do to save the forest? You're full of opinions but no solutions?

Mountain Dweller

A quick general management plan could include: Drastically thin large areas around towns and large roadways to form protective zones where forest fires are stoppable. Chip mulch the small stuff, log midsized, leave large diameter trees. The rest of the forest doesn't have to look like a park. It's part of a healthy forest for a mix of tree sizes, some old trees die and fall, logs decompose and add nutrients, mulch layers conserve moisture. Each area is unique and requires a management plan that fits the needs of the area. Responsibly log areas, some logged with fewer trees per acre and others with more, leave other areas alone. Choose which to log or leave alone by taking into consideration accessibility for logging, recreation use, and forest benefit. Plan logged areas to be a patchwork of the 3 different types so dense growth is by more open areas and mid density. No prescribed or managed fires, and suppress all natural fires. I'm sure if the health of both forests and people are given equal thought, a good management design can be used that doesn't kill people or allow California town burning fires.

Tired

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup]

Tired

What a load of poo. Too much burning going on. And they do not give a hoot about the winds or air quality. Come on out to Vernon, the direct hit of all the smoke due to the prevailing SW winds.

skall

The tragic number killed in the Vietnam War from 1955 to 1975 totaled 60,000 in those 20 years. Now we’re talking about 15,000 to 40,000 deaths PER YEAR from smoke. We should not assume, whether from wildfires or controlled burns, that we must simply allow that many deaths.

No one treatment plan is right for every area, but it’s time for people to quit listening to the “false dilemma” pitch and insist on non-polluting methods, including: fire breaks; mechanical removal; mowing or cutting; targeted grazing, including goats for ladder fuels (our neighbors had goats and they are fun to watch); using or creating new technology that can use waste wood for activated carbon, wood fiber to strengthen certain plastics, or any other creative methods; chipping and leaving the biomass in place, which has benefits to the soil. There are many types of machines that do this latter quickly and efficiently.

skall

If you want to know how much we’re being guided down this insane path, take a look at a couple of reports from before the madness of burn, burn, burn:

Following research done by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the opening paragraph of a 2009 news release states, “…The results from the new study also suggest that smoldering fires may produce more toxins than wildfires — a reason to keep human exposures to a minimum during controlled burns.”

Also, according to a Congressional Research Service Report, “…prescribed fires may produce more pollution (because of less efficient burning) than wildfires burning the same area.”

Either way, smoke kills. People shouldn’t have to choose between whether they are having a rifle or a hand gun fired at them. As some stand and watch people suffer and die, remember, one of the bullets they are firing may hit you.

Russ_in_WML

Control burn it now or lose it all later.

RockyRidge

You can't do prescribed burns 24/7 in multiple areas, in

multiple counties for years on end and then say oh, isn't

this so much better than that wildfire we had for one

month five years ago. There is no comparison to the

amount of smoke being generated over time, yet the forest

service keeps haning it's hat on this asinine comparison.

Tired

Come on Russ. You know that burning isn't the ONLY thing we can do. Burn in moderation and add other solutions. What good is it to burn only if we are killing people?

ClearThinking

As others have noted, the studies quoted in this article showing that wildfire smoke is worse than smoke from prescribed burns are based on a comparison of data from one specific wildfire incident to data from one particular prescribed burn incident. This type of comparison does not take into account the fact that many prescribed burns are occurring simultaneously in northern AZ forests during the "cooler" months of the year, most of them covering thousands of acres of forest at a time. It also does not take into account the fact that the forest service "manages" many of the wildfires that occur in the hot, summer months, "growing them" with daily ignitions, from the original one-tree lightening-strike fire to many thousands of acres. In this way, they essentially become summer-season prescribed burns, but without the need for ADEQ monitoring since they can be officially classed as wildfires.

Another consideration is that even the forest service is not now saying that our choice is "either" prescribed burns "or" wildfires. It is "both". As stated in the recent Coconino National Forest's Tentative list of prescribed burns for Nov. 12-14, 2019: "Frequent, low-intensity fire removes accumulated smaller fuels and recycles nutrients in the soils to promote healthy vegetation and wildlife habitat. A healthier forest is a safer forest for firefighters and residents when wildfires inevitably occur."

So wildfires will inevitably occur and we will breathe down that smoke when they do, in addition to all the smoke we have already inhaled from the nearly-constant repeat prescribed burns that preceded them. It seems to me that the real question here is how detrimental to people's health is the effect of the smoke from years of managed wildfires and prescribed burns, producing daily smoke nearly year round, compared to one wildfire event? Evidently, those of us who live in the 4FRI area will be guinea pigs in the experiment that eventually answers that question.

Tired

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup] Thank you! Exactly what we've been saying about ADEQ and the FS' back door way to make small natural fires into whooping smoke filled controlled burns without oversight.

RockyRidge

Repetition makes a statement seem more true, regardless of whether it is or not. The Nazi’s were masters at the “illusion of the truth effect,” in which Joseph Goebbels said if you repeat something often enough then the public believes it as fact. I am beginning to wonder if Mr. Alshire is a reporter of the news or a creator of it. A myth or theory that fire has to be reintroduced to the forest on a massive scale has been created by an environmental movement within the forest service. The forests weren’t perfect 200 years ago and they won’t be perfect today. We need to help our forests by thinning and logging to make the remaining trees healthy. Mulch can be left where it lies to feed the trees and plants. Super air tankers can be purchased to put the fires out. This narrative that our only choice is between wildfires or control burns has been created by the forest service and is a giant scare tactic of which the public is growing weary. We can breathe and have healthy forests at the same time. It’s time we demand our elected officials protect the health of both the forests and us.

Tired

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup] This is the best response yet! Thank you!

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