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Burn rules might change

by Sharon Carter

Concerned about the impacts of proscribed burning on air quality, state and federal environmental protection personnel met with more than two dozen county, state and federal fire officials Thursday at the Sierra Front’s Minden Dispatch Center and Friday in Carson City.

Colleen Cripps, of the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Air Quality, led the workshop-style discussions of what will be included in the state smoke emissions policies and regulations she is working to develop – rules which will likely govern when, where and under what conditions proscribed burns will be allowed.

A proscribed burn area, East Fork Fire Chief Jim Reinhardt said, is a block of land which, under specific environmental conditions, experts determine should be burned or allowed to burn naturally to deplete fuel loads (brush, dried grass and weeds, dead and dying trees) and reduce the chance of out-of-control wildfires.

Such burns are used to foster changes in vegetation. For example, eliminating some pinon-juniper stands in the Pine Nut Mountains allows specific grasses and the wildlife that relies on the grasses to return to the area. They are also used to remove slash – small branches, wood chips and bark debris – left at logging sites.

At issue is the amount of smoke released into the atmosphere.

Cripps said her office receives many calls and complaints from citizens when smoky haze fills Nevada valleys.

“Often we don’t know what to tell people, we don’t know who’s burning or what the smoke contains and if it’s a health threat,” she said.

And often, she said, the source of the smoke is proscribed burns, such as the heavy smoke last fall from burns in the Stanislaus National Forest in California. This past week, the haze over Northern Nevada originated from proscribed and agricultural burns in Idaho.

Cripps said Nevada has no control over smoke sources outside its boundaries, but with better communication between agencies, a region-wide system to coordinate burning and keep smoke emissions within certain limits could be set up.

She said her office does not want to completely close down proscribed burns, but needs to know how to fit them into the regulations it is drafting.

“We want to tighten (smoke emissions) up in the future,” Cripps said. “We’ll need pre-notifications within 24 hours of burns and burn plans. The plans should include evaluations of alternatives to burning – assessments as to why the burning is required rather than using other methods that minimize fuel loading and eliminate burning entirely. It should also include smoke management and modeling for emissions. There will be a fee structure. And we’ll want post-burn reports.”

She said the timetable to develop the regulations is short.

“We’d like the draft (finished) by the end of June,” she said. “It would then go to the state’s Legislative Counsel Bureau to be put in legal language. It will then be noticed to the public and the state environmental commission will conduct open hearings. Then it would be adopted and become part of the regulations before burning season starts in the fall.”

Many of the fire professionals who attended Thursday’s meeting said they had questions which had not yet been addressed by the Bureau of Air Quality.

East Fork’s Jim Reinhardt said his concerns as a fire chief include the proposed regulations’ potential effect on “dooryard burning,” which many Douglas County residents use to clean up around their homes and create defendable fire space.

Open burning in the district is already limited to the months of October, March, April and May, but would likely be further limited by such policies. Particularly, Reinhardt said, since federal policy mandates that 3,000 acres in the Tahoe Basin must be burned each year to insure the health of the forest, the amounts of smoke generated by Tahoe burns would likely preclude other burns in the region.

He said there are also proposals in the works to change the Nevada Administrative Code which allows farmers and ranchers to clear irrigation ditches and remove noxious weeds from their fields by burning.

David E. Early of Carson City, a forest management consultant who is currently working with developers of the Job’s Peak Ranch planned community in Douglas County, said some of the requirements the state is planning might unfairly burden ranchers and private landowners.

“Some of the environmental stuff they’re talking about requiring can get awful ‘spendy’,” Early said Friday. “I’m suggesting they come up with a checklist ranchers and landowners can use. I’d also like to see no fees, or a flat fee per permit rather than fees based on estimates of smoke emissions.”

For public entities, the bottom line is also dollars. As well as the as yet undetermined fees, participants at the workshops anticipate other costs will arise.

“There’s no doubt this will have significant impacts on us,” Reinhardt said. “The fees they’ll charge go to fund their agency. Our district is not funded to pay fees or obtain permits. We don’t have the monitoring equipment or the money to buy it. When we tone out engines to go to a fire, will we have to notify air quality each time? Who will do it? Who will issue permits and enforce the regulations? Who pays for the personnel?”

Some of Reinhardt’s concerns were echoed by U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Nevada and California state parks and Nevada Division of Forestry representatives.

Rick Jones, a resource forester with NDF who lives in Douglas County, said proscribed burning was a forest management tool his division did not want to lose.

“We need to hold it as an option for treating areas like steep slopes that can’t be handled mechanically,” Jones said.

For Fire Management Officer Mike Dondero of the Humboldt/Toiyabe National Forests Ranger District, it is a question of coordination.

“We already do the burn plans, so we can notify the air quality people along with the others,” Dondero said. “The sensitive area is along the Sierra front. Our concern is that the policies be applied with common sense in other less populated areas in Nevada.”

John R. Kennedy, chief of the technical support office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Division, Region 9, in San Francisco, said the EPA was working with “stake-holders” to plan for the future.

Kennedy said Nevada’s Bureau of Air Quality is in the beginning stages of an on-going process. He said smoke generated from proscribed burns is different than the urban air quality situations faced by Clark and Washoe counties several years ago.

“Those counties were under Clean Air Act deadlines,” Kennedy said. “In this process, there are no deadlines or penalties in place.

“What we want is to get good (smoke) management practices in place at state and local agencies. If it works well and there’s no violation of air quality standards, there isn’t a (punitive) hammer. If the process fails and standards are violated and the states and agencies don’t improve their procedures, then the EPA will step in and require smoke management – require them to put the regulations into their implementation policies. It would be federally enforceable and make them subject to citizens’ (law) suits.”

The Record-Courier E-mail: rc@tahoe.com

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