Woodsmoke 101 – backyard burning

Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a series the Citizen will be publishing in partnership with the provincial Ministry of the Environment and the Cowichan Valley Regional District about the importance of clean air the effects of pollution.

What’s the harm in piling up your fallen branches a few times a year and enjoying a nice bonfire?

The smoke from backyard fires contains a lot of toxic chemicals and compounds in the form of fine particles, and it is highly likely that you and your neighbours will breathe in some of that smoke as the burning tends to be close to homes and at ground level. If you are healthy, chances are you won’t notice any major impacts, but that does not mean others won’t. According to Island Health, in 2011 there were over 10,000 people with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease living in the CVRD who could be affected.

In the past month, air quality conditions have been quite poor at times in the Cowichan Valley. On the weekend of Nov. 8 and 9, open burning, woodstoves, and backyard burning were major contributors during weather conditions that kept the smoke hanging around and residents could hardly see across the Valley.

Last week, the Ministry of Environment issued an air quality advisory for the Cowichan Valley. At around 5 p.m. on Nov. 14, the average level of fine particles measured at the monitoring station in Duncan rose above the provincial guideline, and remained elevated for six straight days. People with chronic conditions were advised to limit their exposure by staying indoors, keeping windows and doors closed, and to use air cleaners equipped with HEPA filters.

Like thousands of municipalities across North America, the Cowichan Valley Regional District now manages the impacts of backyard burning on local air quality. Burning is completely banned in the City of Duncan, and the towns of Ladysmith and Lake Cowichan. In Electoral Areas A, B, C, D and E, back yard burning is restricted to March 15 through April 15 in the spring, and Oct. 15 through Nov. 15 in the fall, and only when the B.C. Venting Index for southern Vancouver Island (SRN VAN ISLD) is "good", indicating that weather conditions are adequate to disperse the smoke before it builds up and creates a problem.

No backyard burning should have been occurring on Nov. 8 because the B.C. Venting Index was "poor", and even though burning is not allowed in most areas of the CVRD as of Nov. 15, many backyard fires were observed during the advisory period. Any backyard fire that violates these bylaws can be put out by the Municipality of North Cowichan or CVRD at the property owner’s expense. If you are being impacted by the smoke from an illegal backyard burn, you can report it to CVRD or MNC bylaw enforcement (www.cvrd.bc.ca/index.aspx?NID=1464).

In fact, there is no need to burn your yard waste at all. Residents can drop off yard and garden waste for free (branches less than three inches in diameter, no rock, sod or dirt) at CVRD recycling centers and at Central Landscape Supplies Ltd. in South Cowichan. Larger branches, tree trunks and stumps are also accepted for a fee of $95 per tonne. Less smoke means better air quality for everyone and less health problems.

Visit the CVRD website for more details on Bylaw No. 3716 (www.cvrd.bc.ca/index. aspx?nid=1759).

Eleanor Setton is a research scientist at the University of Victoria, with a special interest in the health impacts of pollution in the environment. Contributions were also made by the Cowichan Valley Regional District and the B.C. Ministry of Environment.

Woodsmoke 101 – it’s in the air (cowichanvalleycitizen.com).

Upcoming articles: what’s in woodsmoke compared to other heating options; what happens when you burn garbage; other sources of air pollution in the CVRD; and air pollution health costs and management strategies.

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