Debate smolders over restrictive smoke permits

Keywords: Poll question,

DENVER — U.S. foresters warned the Colorado health department in March 2011 that its restrictive permits on prescribed burns were increasing the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

The warning came a full year before the start of the most destructive fire season in Colorado history, with a toll of six deaths and more than 600 burned homes.

State officials disagree that their permits are the main constraint on prescribed burns. They point out that foresters doing prescribed burns also have to contend with weather and a lack of personnel and money.

But restrictive smoke permits don’t help, said Craig Goodell, a fire mitigation and education specialist at the San Juan Public Lands Center.

“When we layer that smoke permitting on top of all the other things, suddenly we don’t have very much room to do many acres,” said Goodell, who wrote a critical report about Colorado’s Smoke Management Program in March 2011.

Aside from California, Colorado has the most restrictive smoke permitting in the country, Goodell said.

Second only to weather, securing permits from the Smoke Management Program is the biggest obstacle to prescribed burns, said Paul Langowski, branch chief for fuels and fire ecology for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain region.

Will Allison, head of the state’s Air Pollution Control Division, disagreed that his smoke program is one of the main obstacles. His division has never denied a burn permit to the Forest Service, although it does place restrictions on how many acres can be burned and when fires can be set.

In 2011, the Forest Service burned less than a fifth of the 57,142 acres for which the state issued permits. Other factors, like population density, weather and lack of personnel at the Forest Service get in the way, Allison said.

“I don’t believe simply permitting more acres is the answer,” he said.

Neither Goodell nor Langowski could think of a place where a restrictive smoke permit led to a wildfire later. However, they both stressed that Colorado needs to get much more serious about burning out its cluttered forests.

Mid-elevation pine forests depend on fire to clear out old brush and make room for new growth. Forests typically experienced a fire once every 10 to 20 years, according to Goodell’s report. But a century ago, the federal government started putting out every fire it could, and it did not start reintroducing fire to forests until the late 1970s or early 1980s.

“The situation is dire. Native ecosystems have accumulated a huge and unnatural energy burden,” Goodell wrote in his report.

He estimated that Colorado’s forests have 90 times as much organic matter — potential fuel for a wildfire — as they used to.

“Withholding fire from fire adapted ecosystems has only one eventual outcome — catastrophic wildfires,” Goodell wrote.

To replicate the natural role of fire, foresters would have to burn an incredible 1.1 million acres of trees and grasslands a year in Colorado. On average, the U.S. Forest Service sets 35,000 acres of prescribed fires, and wildfires burn an average of 50,000 more acres per year, according to the report.

Animas City Mountain on the northern edge of Durango is one place where Goodell thinks a fire would help the ecosystem. He has toured the area with Smoke Management Program staff, and he has gotten approval to burn piles of cut trees the past two years.

But the staff added tight restrictions to the permit, noting that the smoke would affect thousands of people in Durango.

“That may be a reasonable constraint on fire – having people nearby and homes and businesses,” Allison said.

Goodell lamented that the project couldn’t happen.

“We tried to figure out a way we could do it and meet their needs as well as ours, and we just never got it off the ground,” Goodell said.

Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division issues permits for prescribed burns. Although there is no such thing as a federal prescribed burn permit, the state issues permits based on its authority to regulate compliance with the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Particulate matter in smoke is classified as a harmful pollutant under NAAQS.

Anyone who has inhaled a breath of campfire smoke knows how particulates affect the lungs, Allison said.

“At its extremes, it can cause tremendous health problems,” he said.

Particulates can also form ozone, another harmful pollutant for which federal regulators have strict standards.

The Legislature in 2009 passed a bill that directed the state to evaluate its Smoke Management Program and, where possible, increase the use of prescribed fire.

In response, the health department issued a report saying there is no simple “quick fix” to increase prescribed burns, and instead recommended “a steady, incremental, evidence-driven approach.”

That did not please U.S. Forest Service leaders at the regional headquarters in Golden, who asked Goodell to write a critique of the state smoke program.

The state slackened some standards last summer, but not enough to satisfy the Forest Service.

Goodell said the problem stems from organizations with missions that sometimes conflict. The Forest Service wants to improve forest health, and the state health department wants to protect people from breathing smoke.

“I’ve had a wonderful relationship with those folks over the years. Don’t get me wrong. They’re great folks,” he said. “They’re doing what they think is the right thing to do.”

Goodell recently gave a copy of the report to state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, who is leading a legislative commission to look into state wildfire policies. Roberts intends to make the report a topic of discussion when the committee starts its work next month.

“I am not trying to make political hay about this, but I am saying we were told what would happen if we didn’t do anything about our air quality regulations,” Roberts said.