Smoke permits on hot seat

DENVER – State lawmakers grilled health department officials about their restrictive permits for prescribed burns Wednesday, but a resolution to the problem seemed elusive.

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, is chairwoman of the Legislature’s special wildfire task force, and she has been critical of the health department’s smoke-management program for imposing strict conditions when land managers want to set fires to improve forest health.

The Forest Service ripped the state smoke-permit program in a March 2011 report that warned catastrophic wildfires would happen if prescribed burns couldn’t be used more often.

Health department officials acknowledged the conflict in testimony to the Legislature on Wednesday.

“One of the great challenges for prescribed fire, of course, is that perhaps some of the best conditions for removing the smoke are some of the most dangerous conditions for the fire itself. Wind is great at transporting and diluting the smoke, but heavy gusts are perhaps the most challenging for the burn bosses to manage,” said Will Allison, head of the state Air Pollution Control Division.

The division limits the size and timing of prescribed burns in order to reduce the harmful effects of smoke on nearby residents.

The Legislature in 2009 told the air-pollution division to find ways to increase the use of prescribed burns. The division plans to loosen some permit conditions during the winter in the Denver area, increase the volume of slash piles that can be burned each day and shrink its map of sensitive areas that require extra care to guard against smoke, said Gordon Pierce, head of technical services for the air-pollution division.

But not all legislators want to make it easier to set prescribed fires. Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, asked if the health department could work out a system to halt controlled burns even if a permit already was issued on days when it is too dry or windy.

Gerou represents the area of the Lower North Fork Fire, which killed three people in March when a prescribed burn escaped. The Legislature originally set up the wildfire commission to investigate the Lower North Fork Fire.

The panel will meet again in September to continue its work.

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