Clearing the air on open burning

Smoke settles in the Cowichan Valley on Jan. 13. - courtesy Earle Plain
Smoke settles in the Cowichan Valley on Jan. 13.
— image credit: courtesy Earle Plain

The air is clearing on open burning in the Cowichan Valley — and the view is far from perfect.

Cowichan Valley Regional District directors learned Wednesday the valley has some of the island's poorest air quality during the fall and winter months.

Earle Plain, an air quality meteorologist at the Ministry of Environment, explained there are several contributing factors.

"What we see in the fall and winter is some really heavy degradation, to the point where the levels have frequently exceeded our provincial objective," Plain told the News Leader Pictorial following Wednesday's meeting.

"One of the main ones is the source of particulates in the winter, so the addition of that wood smoke that we don't see during the spring and summer. Those are the big drivers, including open burning. Backyard burning is probably one of the worst culprits because people burn green material."

Outdoor burning and wood heating contribute 45 per cent of the fine particulates generated in the province. Wood stoves that aren't operated correctly, or use poor fuels, don't help.

"The other contributor, of course, is meteorological, and that's related to the seasons with less sunlight and less surface heating, so the ability for the atmosphere to disperse emissions is a lot lower in the wintertime than the summer time," Plain explained.

"So what happens, especially in valley communities like Cowichan, is you tend to end up with this cooler air pooling in valleys. It's very stagnant air. You end up with almost like a bathtub event, where emissions stay in the valley."

Backyard burning has been a local issue for years, with government officials forced to weigh the necessities of farmers and other property owners with concerns about air quality.

Those concerns were highlighted Wednesday with Vancouver Island Health Authority medical health officer Paul Hasselback joining Plain in the presentation to the CVRD.

"Air pollution causes both short term and long term affects to health," Hasselback's presentation stated. "Most studies have looked at short term impacts. Long term impacts may be even greater."

The major impacts are on the heart (increasing the risk of heart attacks, angina, heart failure and cardiac arrhythmias) and breathing (exacerbation of asthma, reduced lung function, increased children and adult respiratory hospital admissions and worsening of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).

And Cowichan currently exceeds provincial air quality objectives for both daily maximums and annual average.

"The air quality in the valley does suffer, not only because of spike days (where emissions increase dramatically) but overall poor air quality, much of which is contributed by wood smoke," he said.

"If there is one message I carry with me everywhere, it's that there is no safe level of poor air quality. Anything that can be done to improve the quality of air will result of fewer poor health outcomes."

Plain emphasized it's not all dire news, though.

"Generally speaking, looking at the trends over the past two years, air quality in the Cowichan Valley is really good, even excellent, through the spring and summer months," he said.

Plus, Cowichan's leaders appear more receptive to the idea of more regulation of open burning.

"There's a huge shift this year," said Jennifer Lawson, a vocal advocate for banning backyard burning through the Fresh Air Coalition.

"Even just a year ago, the opposition to just about everything we said was unbelievable," Lawson said. "Whereas this year, they seem ready to move forward with bylaws, and everyone seems to be on the same page."

A review of the Cowichan Valley Regional District's backyard burning bylaw is still in the early research stage, with staff hoping to work on it during the summer, and then present it to directors in the fall.

The CVRD has also created a website, Clear The Air Cowichan, as part of an educational campaign about open burning.

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