Fire pits get new scrutiny in quest for clean air

Wood smoke
Edina homeowner Julie Mellum weeds her garden Monday morning, May 20, 2013. Mellum enjoys spending time outdoors, particularly in her garden, but says wood smoke from neighborhood fire pits sometimes causes her to feel sick and go inside.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Wood smoke from backyard fire pits often keeps Edina neighbors Julie Mellum and Kim Grette away from their favorite activity: gardening.

Both are sensitive to wood smoke. Mellum has asthma and reactive airways, and Grette says her throat tightens when she breathes the smoke, which is common on weekday evenings and weekends.

"I have to get inside fast. And shut all the windows," Mellum said.

"I'd like to be able to sit in my yard and not deal with that," Grette added.

People who are sensitive to wood smoke have long been concerned about backyard burning, but the growing trend of fire pits and chimineas has now caught the attention of state environmental regulators, who say wood smoke is becoming a bigger contributor to Minnesota's air pollution.

Mellum, who founded the group Take Back the Air, welcomes the new scrutiny. She wishes people knew as much about the health risks of wood smoke as cigarette smoke.

"You can go to a bar or restaurant and have clean air. But you can't have clean air in your own yard where you're paying taxes to use and enjoy your property," she said.

RESTRICTING WOOD BURNING

Take Back the Air had asked the city of Minneapolis to ban recreational wood burning. Fire pits remain legal in the city, as long as certain rules are followed: Generally, fires can't be within 25 feet of anything that could catch fire and only non-treated wood can be burned on days when winds are calm. And Minneapolis recently added another rule: no burning on air quality alert days when conditions already make it more difficult for children, the elderly and people with respiratory conditions to breathe.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issues those alerts and is running ads in newspapers and movie theaters asking people to refrain from burning when there's an air pollution advisory. Mary Jean Fenske, who supervises the MPCA's air policy unit, said it's not just about respecting the health of neighbors.

"In particular on air alert days, if we're adding more particulate and other things to that, not only can it decrease the quality of the air, it also could potentially cause us to not meet air quality standards that we're required to meet, and if we do so there could be some significant regulatory costs as well as the costs to human health," Fenske said.

Minnesota currently meets federal air quality standards, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency is expected to continue implementing stricter standards. For years, the MPCA has focused on regulating smokestacks from power plants and factories. Those emissions have decreased to the point that most of Minnesota's air pollution now comes from other sources — everything from vehicles to cows to lawn mowers to wood stoves.

NEW STRATEGIES

"I think we've done an amazing job on what we call point sources of pollution — the regulated sources of pollution. But what we found out is that all the remaining issues we have, we can't regulate it," said Rick Patraw, who manages prevention and assistance programs at the MPCA. "So we're embarking on how to really institute prevention assistance and how you really go after outreach and education."

The Environmental Initiative recently led discussions among businesses, environmental groups and government officials on how to reduce air pollution in Minnesota. Organizers said most of the group members were surprised how big of an impact wood smoke can have on air quality in the Twin Cities.

Analyzing the composition of fine particle pollution is complicated, and sometimes air monitors detect particles that could have come from a wildfire in another state.

Fenske said there's enough data showing wood smoke burned locally is an important piece. Another number the group looked at was an estimate of the amount of wood burned. Preliminary data from a survey of state residents in 2011 and 2012 showed the amount of wood burned in outdoor recreational fires statewide roughly doubled in just four years.

The data on wood smoke has surprised even air quality professionals, said Mike Harley, executive director of the Environmental Initiative.

"It's counter intuitive, it's surprising, but when you see the data, it really seems like something we have to get our arms around," he said.

Besides educating the public, the air quality working group recommended creating an incentive program for wood stove and fireplace owners to switch to cleaner options, such as natural gas. The group also recommended studying whether residents would burn fewer tree limbs and brush in their backyards if their cities picked up the yard waste. Studies have shown that even small reductions in wood burning can have a big impact on air quality.

Harley said getting people to change their behavior won't come fast, but he's optimistic. "We know we can do it — look what we've been able to do with recycling in Minnesota and across the country," he said. "This can be that kind of success story, too, but it will take time."

FIRE PIT BENEFITS

In Minneapolis, backyard fires have generated impassioned debate for several years, although only a tiny percentage of the fire department's overall call volume represents complaints about them, said Dan Huff, the city's environmental health director.

"People feel strongly about recreational fires," he said. "I definitely empathize with folks who suffer from air quality and respiratory issues, but I also know people enjoy having a time to get together with friends and have a campfire in the backyard, so it can be an emotional issue."

People who enjoy their backyard fire pits are concerned about more restrictions. North Minneapolis resident Brian Reichow said he hopes officials won't overlook the benefits of firepits. Most of his neighbors have fire pits, and he and his wife have met new neighbors around his fire pit, he said.

"It's not just about rights, it's about the value of fires and community building," he said. "With all the block club building and the things we have to do to keep control of our neighborhood from troublemakers, the loss of the firepit would be a really big thing."

In Little Canada, in a neighborhood just off of Interstate 35E, Mary Barsness said the smell of vehicle exhaust bothers her more than wood smoke. Her family's fire pit attracts kids from the neighborhood and gets her 13-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter away from the TV.

"It's a little like throwing your welcome mat out," she said. "I'll have a fire and in 20 minutes I'll have 15 kids. So I need to have a steady supply of marshmallows and chocolate bars and graham crackers. 'Cause they're comin'."

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