Air Quality Policy

February 3, 2016

In November, 2015, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new "exceptional events" rule that would provide guidance for determining the criteria under which U.S. air regulatory agencies could grant excemptions to air quality violations under the Clean Air Act, when exceptional events occur such as natural disasters or other non-recurring events (for example, volcanic eruptions, large wildfires, and dust storms). Read about the proposed rule here (EPA website).

Read Sierra Forest Legacy's comments on Treatment of Data Influenced by Exceptional Events; Proposed Rule.

Read Sierra Forest Legacy's comments on the Draft Guidance on the Preparation of Exceptional Events Demonstrations for Wildfire Events that May Influence Ozone Concentrations (Ozone Guidance).

May 29, 2015

In March, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new ozone rule to reduce emissions that result in ozone pollution. Despite the importance of this new rule to human health and welfare, it is also essential that the rule provide sufficient exemptions for prescribed burning in the Sierra Nevada. Prescribed burning programs are necessary to restore fire resiliency and prevent the kind of massive emissions that have occurred repeatedly (as they did in the recent Rim (2013) and King (2014) wildfires, unless broad support is given to regular fuels reduction programs using prescribed and wildland fire use. Read more about the new rule in the March 2015 Sierra Voice newsletter, and download and read SFL 's comments to the agency here. Also read the joint letter from the Northern California, Central Coast, and Southern Sierra Prescribed Fire Councils.

On March 23, 2015, the EPA issued a proposed rule to guide the states' air agencies efforts to meet the statutory state implementation plan (SIP) for PM-2.5 (small particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers or less). These rules, if not finely tuned, could undermine using fire as a restoration tool. Read this comprehensive discussion of the problem, and thoughtful recommendation to remedy the situation, by law professor Kirsten Engle (University of Arizona). Read the proposed rule here, and our comments, here.

These documents and additional resources are found on the right side of this page, or scroll down to the bottom of this page.

Background

Sierra Forest Legacy is working to educate the public, agencies, and decision makers about the need for flexibility in smoke management. Policies are needed that will result in fire-resilient forests and less property loss in the long term.

Agency constraints and conflicting air quality objectives are a significant hindrance to restoring the ecologically beneficial uses of fire to the forests of the Sierra Nevada. Available burning days are arbitrarily restricted, and measured smoke outputs from ecological burning are placed in the same categories as agricultural pollution and auto pollution. Yet, we know that all smoke is not created equal. The local air districts wrongly limit ecological burning and by doing so reap larger, non-characteristic fires producing enormously higher, unmanaged smoke outputs.

While the need for returning fire to Sierra Forests is clear and compelling, there are a number of bureaucratic and regulatory obstacles frustrating the effort to return fire to the landscape at the appropriate scale. This complicates our work to reestablish the original 2001 Sierra Framework as the restoration plan for the 11.5 million acres of the Sierra and in fact resource managers are falling far behind in meeting the projected fire restoration objectives from that plan. A recent assessment of Sierra burning accomplishments found that between 1981 and 1996 Forest Service burned 11,800 acres annually where the planned projections for the 2004 Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment are significantly less, reverting back to logging as the primary restoration tool. Absent significant increases in fire usage Sierra forests will become less fire resilient and less biologically diverse. 

Obstacles to Beneficial Fire Use

Forest Service policy in the Sierra since 2004 has been to support logging-based solutions to restoration while moving away from ecological forestry and the extensive burning that was envisioned under the Clinton-era plan. If we are going to be successful restoring Sierra forests and minimizing commercial logging, we have to overcome the numerous obstacles to the successful re-introduction of managed fire that exist. These obstacles include:

  • Air district regulations in California designed to protect public health fail to recognize that smoke from wildfires will continue and that a program of expanded fire use will actually guide burning to times that reduce the overall impacts to human health.
  • Air quality regulations allow for arbitrary and unreasonable actions by the more than 30 individual air districts in the state which hinder restoration efforts across the Sierra Nevada.
  • Air quality regulators often fail to assess impacts of smoke from forest burning in the context of overall air pollution, choosing to clamp down on forest burning because it is an easy target while turning a blind eye on the harder to regulate–but more serious sources of pollution–like automobile emissions, emissions from heavy equipment operations, fugitive dust from farming and construction projects, and pollution that migrates into air basins from other areas.

To further complicate the issue:

  • Air Quality limitations severely restrict all agricultural burning in the southern San Joaquin Valley even where alternatives exist to managing farm waste.   
  • There is no alternative to forest burning, yet the air quality regulations do not allow land managers to guide fires to minimize health risks.
  • Rather than take responsibility for the massive amount of smoke from uncharacteristic fires, regulators console themselves by considering them “acts of God” outside their control while closely controlling managed events (prescribed and wildland fire use fires) knowing full-well that they are directly compounding effects of pollution from future unmanaged fires.

Below are a few compelling examples that illustrate the challenges in increasing ecological burning to achieve our land management objectives:

  • Sequoia/Kings Canyon Fined $75,000 By Air District:  The SEKI National Park was fined for going ahead with the third day of a planned three day burn in advance of a holiday weekend, deciding that the air district was using overly conservative forecasting to deny the go-ahead to finish the job once started. In fact, the Park was right and no violation of air quality standards occurred, but they were fined nonetheless and have been unable to effectively push back when disagreements occur because of the threat of additional fines.  Managing burn crews demands substantial resources to move personnel and equipment making fire decisions impossible to simply turn off and on; a waiver from permitting would allow the Park to monitor conditions and manage burn/no burn decisions more effectively while protecting public health.
  • Yosemite National Park:  Park officials had what they considered to be an exemplary wildland fire-use fire being employed near El Portal that was projected to reach a previous years’ burn perimeter within a couple of days where it would naturally extinguish itself. The local air district decided that conditions were no longer favorable and ordered the Park Service to suppress the fire to curtail smoke rather than letting it run to the planned perimeter.

    The order resulted in nearly two million dollars of suppression costs that increased risks to firefighter safety from falling snags and ecological damage from additional hand-lines being cut in a fragile area in order to contain the creeping fire. The net result of the arbitrary action by the air district was the loss a fuel reduction activity that would have restored resiliency to a critical area and curtailed future long-term air quality impacts that will result when that area does            burn eventually.     

  • Placer County Holiday Ban: The Placer County Air District which holds permitting authority over the Tahoe National Forest and parts of the Lake Tahoe Basin has imposed an arbitrary ban on all burning during holiday periods. Forest Service land managers have complained to us about the loss of (13) important burning periods. The decision by this individual air district means that some forests can have wildly different operational guidelines from one Ranger District to another and that they have lost important flexibility to achieve restoration objectives.

As part of our policy work, our goal is to increase Sierra-wide use of prescribed fire and “wildland use” fire for ecological restoration, and limiting aggressive logging as a management option. We seek a shift in policy that includes recognition by agency managers that there is an ecological definition of controlled burning that separates–ecologically, socially and legislatively–managed burning from other forms of air pollution and recognizes the public safety elements of promoting controlled burning.

In the Tahoe National Forest region, particularly since the Angora Fire, the topic of how to manage the fuels build-up in the Basin has been controversial. SFL's Jennifer Quashnick has been actively engaged as a member of the California-Nevada Tahoe Basin Fire Commission Wildland Fuels Committee helping to educate and steer enlightened policy towards goals that protect property and natural resources without sacrificing sustainability. Read her recommendations to the committee in the letters below.

Fire Science resources located in the Community Protection section of our website contain several papers by fire science researcher Jack Cohen which specifically address the role that homeowners play in preventing property loss from wildfire. Reducing fire hazards is essential to reducing the threat of major fires and smoke.

Air Quality Alert Notification System

We know that fire is essential for restoration and resilience in our forests and we also know that smoke can aggravate respiratory problems for some people. In an effort to distribute information to those most affected by smoke, Sierra Forest Legacy has teamed up with the Forest Service and the Fresno-Madera Medical Society to create a communication plan when prescribed burning is planned. Our goal is to have an electronic notification system sending pertinent information from the medical community to those persons that may be most likely to be affected by the smoke. We will be sending out three notifications: 1) information about upcoming burn (the who, what, approximately when, and why); 2) information on when ignition will occur (within a day of ignition–time to prepare); and 3) information when project is complete. The following notifications were sent out for the May, 2014 Boulder Creek Burn.

1st Notice -- Early Contact Alert -- Download here.

2nd Notice -- Burn is Expected. Download here.

Notification of completion of the project -- Download here.

In addition to the notification system, persons and communities can find more information on how to prepare for smoke at the following local air pollution control districts’ webpages:

For residences on the west side of the Sierra Nevada range, visit San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District http://www.valleyair.org/Home.htm

For residences on the east side, visit Great Basin Air Pollution Control District http://www.gbuapcd.org

Additional Updates on smoke can be found at California Smoke Information Blog

The Forest Service is working closely with the San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District to monitor the smoke from locations that are within prescribed burn areas as well as monitoring smoke impacts in the valley.

 

Additional Resources

2016 group scientists' letter re: The fire challenge: Increasing fire use for natural resource benefits, carbon stability and protection of public health. Jan. 22, 2016. Sent to USDA, US EPA, USDI, and CEQ.

Cisneros, R., Schweizer, D., Zhong, S., Hammond, K., Perez, M.A., Gou, Q., Traina, S., Bytnerowicz, A., Bennett, D.H. 2012. Analyzing the effects of the 2002 McNally fire on air quality in the San Joaquin Valley and southern Sierra Nevada, California. International Journal of Wildland Fire 21, 1065-1075(1.40 MB PDF)

Cisneros, R., Schweizer, D., Preisler, H., Bennett, D.H., Shaw, G., Bytnerowicz, A.  2014. Spatial and seasonal patterns of particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California. Atmospheric Pollution Research 5 (2014) 581-590 (1.4 MB PDF)

Engel, K.H. 2013. Perverse incentives: the case of wildfire smoke regulation. Ecology Law Currents. 40(623):623-671. (3.19 MB PDF)

Quashnick, J. 2007. Letter to California-Nevada Tahoe Basin Fire Commission Wildland Fuels Committee, 10/11/2007. Subject: Recommendations regarding Air Quality and Prescribed Fire. (63KB PDF)

Quashnick, J. 2007. Letter to California-Nevada Tahoe Basin Fire Commission Wildland Fuels Committee, 12/31/2007. Subject: Recommendations regarding Air Quality and Prescribed Fire. (67KB PDF)

Schweizer, D. and Cisneros, R. 2014. Wildland fire management and air quality in the southern Sierra Nevada: Using the Lion Fire as a case study with a multi-year perspective on PM2.5 impacts and fire policy. Journal of Environmental Management 144 (2014) 265-278.

Schweizer, D. et al. 2017. Using National Ambient Air Quality Standards for fine particulate matter to assess regional wildland fire smoke and air quallity management. J. Env. Mgmt. 201 (2017) 345-356.

The Wilderness Society 2007. Federal Fire Policy and Management Position Paper: Appropriate Management Response.(59 KB PDF)

USDA Forest Service, USDI BLM, NPS. 2003. Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy. (774 KB PDF)

USDA Forest Service. 2000. Protecting People and Sustaining Resources in Fire-Adapted Ecosystems (877 KB PDF)

 

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