Air regulations could vex use of prescribed fire

By Bruce Ritchie

Those who work to improve natural areas on federal, state and private lands are at risk of losing one of their most important tools — prescribed fire, a top federal fire official said this week.

Land managers in Florida burn about 2 million acres a year in Florida on average to improve habitat for wildlife and reduce the risk of wildfires, according to the Florida Division of Forestry. But state forestry officials say burning is needed on up to 6 million acres annually.

Dennis Haddow, the national smoke management program coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told a fire ecology conference in Tallahassee that air quality regulations and nuisance complaints about smoke in neighborhoods threaten the use of prescribed fire. He said land managers need to take responsibility for their actions and get to know local, state and federal air quality regulators to avoid having their prescribed fire operations shut down.

“Air quality regulations are getting more stringent,” Haddow said. “We need to be involved in writing those regulations. We must be experts on the impacts of our emissions. And we must be leaders rather than followers.”

Prescribed burning operations must deal with federal regulations including those regulating ozone or smog, fine particles pollution and regional haze in national parks. Haddow said eventually reducing pollution from coal-fired power plants would address those problems, but he said prescribed burning may be the target of regulations until then.

State and regional air regulations even apply to federal lands, Haddow said. The National Park Service, he said, had to pay $25,000 to an air pollution control district for burning without a local permit.

“You will never be able to blame air quality regulators for taking away our ability to use prescribed fire,” Haddow said. “If we lose that, the only people we could ever blame is ourselves. The opportunity to make sure that doesn’t happen is out there.”

Haddow told Florida Environmental News during a break in the Tall Timbers 24th Fire Ecology Conference that Florida has led the way in working with air quality regulators. But he said there was a lot of finger-pointing in Georgia recently after smoke from prescribed fire blew into Atlanta.

“Probably the best cooperation in this part of the U.S. is in Florida. They work hard at it,” Haddow said. “Georgia is moving ahead with it but has a ways to go.”

Jim D. Brenner, fire management administrator with the Florida Division of Forestry, said he speaks regularly with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection about air quality issues. DEP joined with the Division of Forestry a few years ago in defending a lawsuit in Palm Beach County over nuisance smoke from a legal prescribed fire.

“Talking with people across the country, I’m always amazed at how little cooperation there is between the air quality folks and the folks that are involved with prescribed fire.” he said. “They are in constant competition.

“Here in Florida, that doesn’t happen,” he said. “We have an exceptionally good relationship.”

Georgia officials are beginning to inform the public and work with air regulators at the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Alan Dozier, fire protection chief at the Georgia Forestry Commission.

“The federal air quality folks are listening more than ever,” Dozier said. “I’m not going to say we’re where we need to be with EPA, but we’re sure working at it. We’re finally at the table.”

Fire managers face increasing challenges against lawsuits, development in forested areas and a society that is increasingly out of touch with land management and natural areas, said Kevin Robertson, fire ecologist at Tall Timbers.

“It’s very clear to me if we lose prescribed fire, we will lose everything we worked so hard to preserve,” Robertson said.

Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie