The sunny skies of the Inland Northwest were smudged Thursday with smoke from lingering agricultural fires and slash burns in North Idaho and Eastern Washington.
The eye-stinging smoke is trapped in the area due to a major highpressure system over the West. Conditions are expected to improve today.
“Anybody doing anything from the Rocky Mountains to the Cascades is contributing to it,” said Ron Edgar of the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority.
The smoke has triggered a rash of complaints to local air pollution hot lines in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene - and a flurry of finger-pointing about who’s to blame.
A meteorologist for the bluegrass industry said a 350-acre burn at the Turnbull Wildlife Refuge near Cheney was a likely culprit.
The Turnbull fire “has been smoldering for the last two days,” said Darrell McClung of the Intermountain Grass Growers Association. He’s a Cheney resident who helps run an IGGA weather station in southern Spokane County.
That’s wrong, said Turnbull fire manager Bob Plantrich.
None of the smoke from Turnbull’s Monday fire, set to improve wildlife habitat, got into Spokane, Plantrich said.
“Our smoke all went west, away from Spokane,” he said. “We’re very strictly regulated.”
He blamed the smoky haze over Spokane on Idaho farmers, because prevailing winds have been blowing from the east and northeast this week.
“I’ve never seen smoke go against the wind,” Plantrich said.
An IGGA spokeswoman in Coeur d’Alene said Idaho bluegrass growers weren’t responsible.
“We always get blamed for it,” Linda Clovis said, “but this time, it’s not us.”
The blame game angers a local air pollution activist.
Patricia Hoffman, a Spokane Valley veterinarian, said she’s been deluged with calls this week from sick and angry people.
Some are parents of children with lung diseases who have fled the area and want to know when it’s safe to return.
“There’s 40,000 acres of grass fields being burned within a 40-mile radius of Spokane, and tens of thousands of acres of wheat stubble,” Hoffman said. “You don’t have go look much further.”
Hoffman took to the skies this week to trace the course of the smoke. She photographed agricultural smoke from the Rathdrum Prairie “coming straight into the Spokane Valley.”
Hoffman is right about the source of the smoke, said Dan Redline of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality in Coeur d’Alene.
His state agency got nearly 100 calls on Monday and Tuesday, most from angry Spokane Valley residents.
Another 110 calls were logged at SCAPCA’s office in Spokane on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The smoke, because of low wind speeds, “had a pretty good impact on the Spokane Valley,” Edgar said.
Farmers burned wheat stubble and other cereal grains on the Rathdrum Prairie early in the week, and it was that smoke that blew into the Valley, Redline said.
On Thursday, Idaho bluegrass growers were trying to burn their remaining 26 acres on the Rathdrum Prairie. No burning was allowed in south Spokane County on Thursday.
But SCAPCA gave growers in north Spokane approval to torch 26 additional acres of bluegrass in the afternoon.
That was because the inversion was expected to break up and the winds to shift north, Edgar said.
“The smoke went to Chattaroy and Colbert,” he said.
The controversial field burning season ended Thursday in Idaho, where growers have a 45-day burning window on the Rathdrum Prairie.
But it will continue in Washington because the state Legislature deregulated field burning at bluegrass growers’ urging in 1995.
Under a 1996 rule, the Department of Ecology has slashed by two-thirds the number of bluegrass acres that can be burned statewide. There’s no similar curtailment for other crops.
But due to unfavorable weather, Spokane County bluegrass growers “are a long ways from being done” Clovis said. Some 2,000 to 3,000 acres remain to be torched, she estimated.
Two south Spokane County growers have indicated they want to burn today or this weekend. That would be a departure from a voluntary IGGA plan not to burn on Fridays or weekends.
SCAPCA can no longer limit the burning season in Spokane County due to the Legislature’s action. But the agency can veto burning when weather conditions would send smoke into Spokane.
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