Steamed up over wildfire smoke

By Jessica Cejnar, The Triplicate October 04, 2013 07:18 pm

A large plume of smoke rising from the Siskiyou Complex Fire southwest of Happy Camp was visible from Crescent City on July 10, 2008.
A large plume of smoke rising from the Siskiyou Complex Fire southwest of Happy Camp was visible from Crescent City on July 10, 2008. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
After listening to a recent presentation on how wildfires can affect air quality in the North Coast area, some Del Norte County supervisors vented their frustration with how the U.S. Forest Service manages land.

Rick Martin, air pollution control officer with the North Coast Air Quality Management District, talked to supervisors in particular about a spate of wildfires that began June 20, 2008, and burned about 600,000 acres of land in Humboldt, Del Norte and Trinity counties.

Following the presentation, supervisors asked Martin what regulatory powers the air quality district has to address the fuel load on national forest lands.

“I appreciate your presentation, but I’m also very disappointed in your presentation,” Board Chairman Mike Sullivan told Martin. “Because everything you’ve said had to do with dealing with the symptoms, not dealing with the cause. We have these massive wildfires because they don’t manage the forest. If they went in and managed the forest we would not have the fires to this degree or this intensity or this size, but they don’t.”

The Board of Supervisors’ discussion came after the Air Quality Management District Board of Directors, which includes District 1 Supervisor Roger Gitlin, discussed the district’s role in forestry management Sept. 19. Gitlin had proposed that the air district board to send a letter to the Forest Service encouraging “stronger action to prevent catastrophic wildfire.”

The air district board chose not to take a stronger position, Gitlin said Tuesday. He said he was in the minority. 

“We can’t seem to get our federal partners to step up and do their job,” he said. “I made a motion at (the air district board’s) last meeting to ask them to step up and cull down the forest. The response was this is our federal partner, let’s ask them what we can do. We lost that by 1-4.”

Gitlin mentioned recent air quality public service announcements the Air Quality Management District issued as a result of wildfire smoke, saying the fires have resulted in foul air for parts of Del Norte County.

The North Coast Air Quality Management District monitors the air quality in Del Norte, Humboldt and Trinity counties. Representatives on the board include a Del Norte and Trinity county supervisor, two Humboldt County supervisors and a representative from a city within the district.   

Most of the time, the air quality in the North Coast district is very good, Martin said. 

When the Corral Complex fire broke out last month, Willow Creek and Hoopa were impacted the most, Martin said. 

Hoopa was also affected by wildfires near Orleans, which blew smoke down the Klamath River drainage, Martin said.

During the wildfires in the eastern North Coast area and in Southern Oregon, the air district scientists set up air quality monitors in Gasquet and Crescent City, Martin said.

“Those monitors did show a couple days when particulate matter was higher than normal, but it wasn’t hazardous in any way, shape or form,” he said. “It wasn’t even high enough to declare an alert in those areas.”

Smoke from the fires in Southern Oregon had more of an impact in communities across southern Humboldt and northern Mendocino, Martin said. The wind had blown the smoke off shore, where it became trapped in the marine layer, he said. Smoke even went all the way down to northern Sonoma and Lake counties.

Locally, in the Smith River National Recreation Area, the U.S. Forest Service with help from the public has created federally-funded wildfire protection plans, said Fire Division Chief Mike Frederick. Gasquet’s Community Protection Project consists of fuel breaks that surround the Pioneer Hill area, Gasquet Mobile Home Park and the town of Gasquet itself, Frederick said. 

“Starting in 2003 we put the plans in action,” he said, adding that this includes clearing the fire breaks of undergrowth. “We have to prioritize where we put our limited resources. In the last few years it’s been mostly in the community protection process. We spend a lot of time and money, energy, and have done some really good work.”

Fuel reduction is also part of the Coon Mountain Restoration Project as well as the Big Flat Timber Sale, Frederick said. The Forest Service has also turned the roads in those areas into fuel breaks, he said.

Martin said he may ask U.S. Forest Service representatives to meet with the air district board and give a presentation. 

“I think the air board would very much like to hear from the forest supervisors themselves and (for them) to answer any questions the board may have,” he said.

At the supervisors meeting, Gitlin told Martin he will continue to bring the issue up for discussion at future air board meetings.

“I’m going to continue to bring that to your attention so we take a position a little stronger than the one our current AQMD Board decided on,” Gitlin said.

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