Soaring burn-permit demand in Grand County reflects mounting tree disposal problem | SkyHiNews.com

Soaring burn-permit demand in Grand County reflects mounting tree disposal problem

by Tonya Bina
Sky-Hi Daily News

Before the 2007-2008 burn season even started, the Grand County Division of Natural Resources had permitted 7,000 piles of slash.

After this season’s launch on Wednesday, Nov. 21, the department tallied an unprecedented 10,000 piles.

That equates to 310 permits, exceeding the number of permits issued during the entire season last year.

The demand this season is staggering, said Grand County Natural Resources Foreman Jennifer Murray.

“I think it’s scary,” she said. “It’s quite overwhelming.”

The department is under pressure to allow citizens to get as much work done as possible during a five-month season. The trick, however, “is not impacting too many people and the air quality they deserve,” Murray said.

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Where before Grand Lake had the highest concentration of permits due to a beetle outbreak that arrived seven years ago, most of the burn permits now are in the Fraser Valley.

“People don’t realize the volume out there,” Murray said. “If we let all of them go at once, the air would be unlivable for many days to a week.”

The Fraser Valley is most prone to temperature inversions, and therefore air quality is a large concern as smoke has the potential to hang when conditions are wrong for burning.

Murray studies the National Weather Service Web site daily for Grand County’s ventilation rate, which gauges the potential for smoke dispersal.

Friday showed poor ventilation, thus no permission was given to burn slash piles that day and Saturday.

“Unless it starts to snow this weekend, don’t expect to burn,” she told caller after caller.

Air quality is ultimately regulated by the state, and the concentration of burning in any given area cannot exceed set standards.

“We’re trying to let as much go off as possible without any one place looking like Armageddon,” Murray said.

The division does this by keeping track of the number of piles in a certain air shed. A burn permit can be denied if there are too many in one place.

In light of the tree problem last winter, Grand County commissioners gave more leeway as to what burn days are appropriate. Before, burn days were defined as days when it was snowing.

But that wasn’t enough to make progress in the eyes of property owners racing to remove dead lodgepoles ” before wildfire does it for them.

So, commissioners widened the window by allowing burn days even when it’s not snowing and when ventilation rates are acceptable.

“The demand out there was that we couldn’t just wait for snow conditions anymore,” Murray said.

People do seem to be tolerating smoke more than they used to, she continued, with the understanding that if they don’t, there could be a more serious consequence. Even so, she errs on the side of caution.

“Everyone has the right to breathe air that isn’t smoky,” Murray said.

New this burn season is Ordinance 8, a county-wide law that gives firefighters the right to ticket someone who is found to be burning negligently.

But calls are flooding dispatch and fire departments from citizens who may not understand the burn permit program, thinking sparks are flying for no reason.

If someone really does think there is a true house fire or out-of-control fire, they are urged to call 911.

But if there is the chance that a fire is a permitted burn pile, they may free up 911 by calling Grand County dispatch’s non-emergency number at 725-3311. Dispatch has a database of all permits in the county, as does the Division of Natural Resources.

People can also call Natural Resources, 887-0745; staff is on-call on weekends.

April, when the burn season closes, seems a long way off to Murray right now. So the game plan is simple: Take it “one day at a time,” she said.

“People have to remember, this wasn’t created in a day or a year, and it won’t be solved in a day or a year. We just have to keep moving forward and get as much done as we can.”

– Tonya Bina can be reached at 887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail tbina@grandcountynews.com.

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