When autumn smoke gets in your eyes

There was little time to revel in the sudden appearance of sunshine in October after over a week of low dense fog

There was little time to revel in the sudden appearance of sunshine in October after over a week of low dense fog, because our skies quickly filled with smoke from countless logging slash piles.

While forest practices have improved since the bad old days of the 1980s, forest companies still routinely slashburn, and the amount of material going up in smoke has increased despite the growing concerns regarding, waste, air quality and increasing levels of CO2 that fuel climate change.

The primary rationale behind the yearly practice of slashburning is to reduce wildfire hazards, as history shows that many massive forest fires began in the mass of logging debris of branches and tops left in logged over areas. Most slash is now burned in piles near the landings where the logs are piled, as the practice of broadcast burning over the entire logging block is rarely used, due in part to the many times these fires escaped into standing timber, but more so due to the currently used practice of mechanized “whole tree” logging where the entire tree is brought to the landing.

Fortunately, slashburning is far more regulated now than in the past as burning is only allowed when the venting conditions are such that the smoke rises and dissipates quickly.

After many years of public complaints and public health concerns the provincial government finally recognized how excess smoke in the air can cause illness and exacerbate existing health problems such as asthma, and brought in regulations to better control slashburning.

Yet, while the government has toughened the rules for burning, it has loosened the rules regarding logging waste and it has far fewer staff monitoring logging operations. While options do exist to minimize or utilize logging waste, companies are fixated on their balance sheet and thus can only afford to burn.

Elsewhere, waste wood is used to make pellets or is used for bio-fuel in highly efficient co-generation power facilities. One local company that no longer exists, Riverside Forest Products, experimented with mobile chippers and spread the material back out on the blocks where it can break down quickly and improve soil fertility.

Typically now, logging is done by feller-bunchers and grapple skidders that pull entire trees to the landing where a processer limbs, tops and bucks each tree, leaving the waste in massive piles.

After a year or more of air-drying, a forestry crew lights up the piles using a mixture of diesel and gasoline with backpack pumps, the same backpack pumps that are used to hold water during fire season.

Studies show that air pollution is a major cause of health problems.

Wood smoke contains fine particulates that enter eyes and respiratory systems as well as toxic air pollutants, including PAHs, benzene, formaldehyde, acrolein and methane. While a rural lifestyle is usually considered healthier thanks to cleaner air and water, every fall the use of our skies for disposing of logging industry wastes can mean our health is actually being compromised.

As well, due to the pine beetle and massive slash pile burning, B.C.’s forests have turned from a carbon sink to a major contributor of carbon to the atmosphere.

According to provincial data, annual net CO2 emissions from forestlands are 82 million tonnes, which is far higher than the 62 million tonnes from industry and transportation.

Perhaps it is time to consider a policy proposed in a 2003 Simon Fraser University research project that would reduce slash burning by attaching a fee for all fibre burned that would thus encourage environmentally sustainable alternatives.