Growers laid a thick, noxious blanket of grass smoke across the Coeur d’Alene area for the second time in 10 days Wednesday, leaving eyes stinging and angry people gasping for breath.
The local Idaho Division of Environmental Quality office fielded 112 complaint phone calls between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. alone. Asthmatics called their doctors, pulled on inhalers and reached for their most potent medicines.
“This could kill me,” said Kelly McAnally, a Coeur d’Alene emergency room nurse who nearly died after being overcome during the last Lake City smoke-out - Sept. 9. “Farmers said this has been a harrowing and stressful summer, but how much more stressful can it be when you can’t breathe?” McAnally asked.
Meteorologists and grass seed growers in south Spokane County and on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation misguessed the weather. Farmers touched off fields Wednesday morning, assuming the clouds would clear and the smoke would dissipate.
Once 2,500 acres in south Spokane County and 2,000 acres on the reservation were on fire, they realized they were wrong.
“Essentially, we were hoping we’d get good rise so most of the smoke would flow up” and be carried away, said Bob Quinn, meteorologist for the Intermountain Grass Growers Association.
“As we got going, with the cloud cover, we didn’t get good rise, … so there was a lot of low-level smoke,” Quinn said.
The growers stopped burning in early afternoon, once it was apparent that smoke wasn’t going anywhere but to local population centers, Quinn said.
Tuesday, when wind conditions were better, south Spokane County growers burned 5,000 acres, twice as much as Wednesday, with few complaints, he added.
Grass growers promised they would burn only when the weather is right, fired back Mike Rudbeck, president of the Kootenai County Clean Air Coalition. “You and I aren’t meteorologists and we are both smart enough to know this is not a burn day,” Rudbeck said.
“They are not doing a very good job of keeping the peace,” he added. “This is as blatant as blatant can be.”
Rose Fishbein, vice president of the Kootenai County clean air group, says she moved here from Los Angeles “to get fresh clean air.” Wednesday she couldn’t see Hayden Lake from her shore-line home.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe contends that none of its smoke made its way to Coeur d’Alene. “To the best of my knowledge, our smoke is lying on the south end of the lake and moving east,” said Bob Bostwick, tribal press secretary.
People driving U.S. Highway 95 between Coeur d’Alene and the reservation contend smoke easily covered all of the ground between the two.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe itself doesn’t burn any fields, a practice used to enhance next year’s crop, but it regulates the non-Indian growers on the reservation. Reservation growers clearly were responsible for the Sept. 9 smoke-out, even though Intermountain Grass Growers meteorologists advised against it.
In addition, a reservation farmer kept on burning after Coeur d’Alene was hit with smoke. It was determined to be an honest mistake and he was issued a warning instead of being fined, Bostwick said.
Spokane County farmers have about 10,000 more acres to burn out of 21,490 registered for scorching. There are between 6,000 and 7,000 acres left to burn on the reservation. Burning is complete on the Rathdrum Prairie.
The practice is considered the only economically viable way to remove stubble.
McAnally, who has nearly died twice because of grass smoke, says that’s only part of the economic question.
She didn’t have any breathing problems until a year ago, when she first collapsed because of grass smoke, something her doctors confirm. She missed six weeks of work last year. McAnally’s missed 60 hours of work since the Sept. 9 debacle.
“If I can’t go to work, how can I pay my health insurance?” she said. “How can I support my family?”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Hotline People with complaints about the grass smoke can call the Idaho Division of Environmental Quality hotline at 769-2863 or 800-445-4656.