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Grass-Burning Start Renews Fight

FRIDAY, AUG. 16, 1996

North Idaho bluegrass farmers torched their fields Thursday afternoon, just as smoke from Oregon forest fires and area wildfires began to dissipate.

All that fire, combined with early morning temperature inversions, made for a day of haze-filled skies and sparked a public-relations blaze for grass growers.

Farmers tried to douse criticism by pointing out that early morning smoke was not from their fields.

By 1 p.m., however, at least eight grass-seed growers on Rathdrum Prairie and points north had lighted a total of 800 to 1,000 acres, inflaming some residents.

“The sky is black,” shouted Paul Tallman from his Boekel Road home. “It’s very, very dark.”

Officially, the farmers burned for only two hours, but lingering smoke prompted more than 70 calls to a state air-quality complaints hotline throughout the day.

Thursday became the first of 14 days the region’s 40 bluegrass growers can burn during a 45 day window that ends in October. It kicked off what promises to be a bitter burning season, as friction between clean air activists and bluegrass farmers continues to smolder.

Members of the Sandpoint-based Clean Air Coalition Thursday took pictures and tracked grass smoke plumes by airplane radar to build a legal case against individual farmers.

Members have considered using colored dye to simplify their monitoring.

“They tend to try to hide their smoke in forest fire smoke,” said Coalition president Art Long. “They did the same thing during Firestorm ‘91.”

Security guards for the Intermountain Grass Growers Association, meanwhile, were ordered to write down automobile license plate numbers of anyone who stopped along roadsides to photograph farmers.

“We want to know who’s out there with cameras,” said Grass Growers’ spokeswoman Linda Clovis. “We’ve had quite a few threats” of legal action.

Farmers burn fields to rid them of straw and clear the way for the following year’s plants. Without burning, they say, new crop production would drop 25 percent.

Coalition members want to ban burning because smoke irritates respiratory conditions, they say. Dissatisfied with regulatory efforts in Idaho, they are trying to sue growers, hoping to make field burning too expensive for land-rich, cash poor farmers.

Thursday dawned smoky well before grass growers struck their first match.

“That milky looking sky we saw is coming in from the southwest,” said Mark Strobin, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

The smoke most likely was from an 80,000 acre forest fire in central Oregon, field burning in the Columbia Basin and stillsmoky embers from this week’s Airway Heights blaze in Spokane, he said.

It traveled in at about 10,000 feet, but was trapped by a temperature inversion. Ground temperatures at dawn were about 10 degrees cooler than those at 1,000 feet, forcing fresh smoke to hug the earth, he said.

In addition, the Idaho Department of Lands battled 22 lightening-sparked fires, including some at Hauser and Hayden lakes. The biggest of those blazes grew to an acre.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo


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