Air quality awareness: Open burning

May 23, 2011

In recognition of National Air Quality Awareness week, Garfield, Eagle, Mesa, and Pitkin counties, along with the City of Aspen and the US Environmental Protection Agency, have partnered together to raise awareness about indoor and outdoor air quality issues, encouraging our communities to ‘share the air.’

Smoke is harmful to human health, whether it’s from cigarettes or an outdoor fire. The smoke from burning agricultural fields, brush piles, or other natural material has been linked to health problems, ranging from coughing to nervous system disorders. “In Western Colorado particularly in the spring, we get complaints regarding fires and smoke,” said Jim Rada, Garfield County environmental health director. “This time of year if you are out driving, you are likely to see smoke from an outdoor burn.”

Coloradoans who burn branches or other tree waste on their properties must get air quality permits first. There are some exceptions, the most common of which is for agricultural burning. However each county or municipality may have its own requirements. “People need to know before they burn that they must contact their local environmental health or fire departments,” said Rada.

Garfield County Public Health advises that burning household waste is unlawful. Burn barrels pose serious health risks and damage to air, soil and water. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), effects from these toxins can last for decades. Rada advises that modern garbage is a mix of plastics and other synthetics that releases toxins when burned, “Even things that seem harmless, like white office paper and pizza boxes, can produce toxins.”

Local public health and fire experts can offer advice on safe burning conditions. Weather affects how and where smoke and its pollutants move. Pollutants can get trapped in nearby valleys, affecting neighbors in the entire surrounding area. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Air Pollution Control Division advises burning only on days with good smoke dispersal. It also advises waiting until mid- or late morning when weather inversions typically break. After that, burning should be done as early in the day as possible. Fire piles need to be built with density to burn hot and fast for minimization of pollution. Fires should be extinguished before sunset and never allowed to smolder, especially in still, overnight air.

Rada encourages people to consider alternatives to burning that don’t harm air quality, like chipping, composting, and disposing of refuse at landfills. “Pollution from burning reduces the quality of the beautiful views that Western Colorado is known for,” he said. “It’s also important to note that getting a burn permit doesn’t address the threat of escaped fire or other immediate safety concerns that must be considered if you are going to burn.”

To find out more about burning alternatives, regulations, and guidelines, contact Garfield County Environmental Health staff at 970-625-5200, or visit Garfield County’s open burning web page. For permit information, contact the state health department at 303-692-3171, or call your local fire department. For current burn restrictions, visit the Garfield County Emergency Management web page.