Fresh cut lawns, fragrant flowers, salty breezes blowing off the bay - these are some of the pleasant signs in the air that summer is here. But there can be unpleasant signs, too: Odors from compost piles or backyard boat painting or fiberglass projects, smoke from recreational fires or wildfires across the globe, even the haze from July 4 fireworks, to name a few.
Although wintertime residential wood smoke is among the biggest air quality concerns in the Northwest Clean Air Agency's jurisdiction, summertime is accompanied by its own air quality issues.
That makes summer a good time to think about being good neighbors and developing habits that contribute to being good stewards of local air quality year-round.
Fortunately, official air quality monitors tell us that the air is usually clean in most of Whatcom County. But keep in mind that some activities can have a hyper-local effect, yet never be picked up by a monitor.
SMOKE NO JOKE
Whether it's from a backyard fire pit or drifting across the ocean from wildfires in Siberia, smoke affects our local air quality. Burning vegetation produces a complex mixture of fine particles, many of which are toxic, are known to cause cancer and that otherwise can harm your health.
Those at greatest risk are children, the elderly and those suffering from chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma, emphysema and bronchitis.
The Northwest Clean Air Agency regulates burning to protect public health and the state Legislature is phasing out certain types of burning in many areas.
In Whatcom County, burning residential yard debris and land-clearing debris is permanently banned in all incorporated cities as well as urban growth areas: Bellingham, Birch Bay, Blaine, Cherry Point, Columbia Valley (Paradise Valley, Peaceful Valley, Kendall), Everson, Ferndale, Lynden, Nooksack and Sumas.
Burning residential yard debris and land-clearing debris is allowed in the areas of Whatcom County not covered in the permanent burn ban areas listed above. Recreational burning also is allowed throughout Whatcom County. If you choose to burn and you are in an area where it's allowed, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Burn only natural vegetation or dry firewood. Not even paper is allowed except for the amount needed to start the fire;
- Keep the fire small and hot, and only burn when the wind is blowing 7 to 10 mph or less, but not when the air is stagnant;
- Control your smoke. A smoky fire that unreasonably interferes with your neighbors' use and enjoyment of their properties is illegal;
- Know the rules. Check the Northwest Clean Air Agency's website, nwcleanair.org, and the Whatcom County Fire Marshal's website, www.co.whatcom.wa.us/pds/build/fire/burnregulations.jsp, for full regulations, including when a permit is required.
The Northwest Clean Air Agency generally sees an uptick in odor complaints in the summer. More people are outside, potentially creating and smelling offensive odors, and windows are open, so those outdoor odors can more easily reach people indoors. Plus, warmer temperatures tend to make smelly things smellier.
Like smoke, it's illegal to produce an odor that unreasonably interferes with the use or enjoyment of your neighbors' properties. So consider closing up that compost pile in a bin, or maybe talk to your next-door neighbors about when might be a good time to stain your deck so you don't end up doing it during their outdoor wedding rehearsal dinner party. Being considerate is good for everyone in the neighborhood.
If you are subjected to an odor that is unreasonably affecting you, you can report it to us for investigation. Unfortunately, odors are one of the most challenging issues we deal with. They are often intermittent, which makes it difficult for our inspectors to track and confirm the source. But the agency does need your report about odors at the time they are occurring to have the best chance of determining the source. In addition, we'll need a written affidavit from you to document it before we can pursue enforcement.
It might be difficult to think about feeding your woodstove this winter when you're slathering on sunscreen, but firewood doesn't dry overnight. In fact, we recommend drying your wood for at least a year before you burn it, so even if you start stacking and drying wood now, it won't be ready for the upcoming winter.
If you haven't started stacking your wood yet, you'll need to buy dry wood for this winter. The wood you start stacking now will be ready for your recreational fire pit next summer and your woodstove the following winter.
Protect yourself, respect your neighbors:
- Check air quality - current, forecasted and past - on our website at nwcleanair.org/airQuality/current.asp;
- Adjust your activity level: If air quality is poor, consider limiting your outdoor activity. The air quality categories and what they mean to your health are at nwcleanair.org/airQuality/aqiDefinitions.htm;
- Reduce exposure to smoke - for yourself and your neighbors: If it's smoky outside, avoid aerobic activity or stay inside. If your neighbors have a fire that is affecting you, talking to them, neighbor-to-neighbor, is usually the most effective approach. They may not know the rules or be aware that they are causing a problem for you. You can call us at the Northwest Clean Air Agency if you have continued problems with smoke pollution. If you have a recreational fire, be conscious of how the smoke may be affecting your neighbors, and consider alternatives.
Have a wonderful and healthy summer.
To report smoke, odors or other air quality problems, call the Northwest Clean Air Agency when the problem is occurring. Leave a detailed message if you call after business hours. Be sure to leave your phone number so representatives can call you back: 360-428-1617.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Asmundson is the executive director of the Northwest Clean Air Agency, which works to preserve, protect and enhance air quality in Island, Skagit and Whatcom counties. For more information online, go to nwcleanair.org.