Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Air Time: Stagnant air means longer (and more) burn bans

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager, Air Quality Program

Continued stagnant air conditions throughout Eastern Washington are prompting Ecology to extend burn bans in some counties and issue new bans in others.

This morning (Tuesday, Jan. 4), we extended the Stage 2 ban in Kittitas County and the Stage 1 bans in Chelan and Douglas counties.

We also issued Stage 1 bans in Okanogan and Asotin counties. That came after earlier bans in those two counties expired on Monday.

Basically, the air in Eastern Washington — indeed, in most of the state — just isn't moving enough to "scrub out" the smoke that's lingering in communities.

In fact, the National Weather Service has issued an air stagnation advisory for most of Eastern Washington.

We don't ban burning without careful consideration. We issue bans after analyzing what our monitors tell us about air quality in specific counties. State law directs us to issue burn bans when levels of fine particles in smoke reach certain levels, and current and forecasted weather conditions show those levels won't drop anytime soon.

Smoke from outdoor burning, wood stoves and fireplaces is likely to build up where cold air is trapped near the ground. Fine particles in smoke are so small they can easily get into your lungs. Once there, they can cause heart and breathing problems, and even death. Children, people with asthma and respiratory illnesses, and adults older than 65 are most at risk.

A 2009 Ecology analysis estimates that fine particles contribute to about 1,100 deaths and $190 million in health-care costs each year in Washington.

And in 2010, the American Heart Association made a strong statement about how air pollution — including fine particles like those included in wood smoke — can damage your heart.

Under a Stage 1 ban:
  • Use of fireplaces, uncertified wood stoves and uncertified inserts is prohibited unless they are a home’s only source of heat.

  • All outdoor burning – including residential, agricultural and forest burning – is prohibited.

  • Use of certified wood-burning devices and pellet stoves is allowed. Ecology recommends burning hot fires using only clean, dry wood.

Under a Stage 2 ban, like the one in Kittitas County, use of all wood-burning devices — even ones certified as being cleaner-burning — is prohibited.

The Washington State Department of Health recommends that people who are sensitive to air pollution should limit the time they spend outdoors. Air pollution can trigger asthma attacks, cause difficulty breathing, and make lung and heart problems worse.

Ecology recommends that people limit vehicle trips, combine errands or use public transportation to reduce air pollution.

For updates, check local media reports, Ecology’s daily burn decision hotline (1-800-406-5322) and home heating burn ban web page.

You can track air quality in your area by using the Washington Air Quality Advisory (WAQA). This is Ecology’s tool for informing people about the health effects of air pollution, including fine particles. It’s very similar to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s national information tool, the Air Quality Index (AQI). Both use color-coded categories to show when air quality is good, moderate or unhealthy.

The difference is that WAQA shows that air quality is unhealthy earlier, when fewer fine particles are in the air. For more information, see this Ecology focus sheet.

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