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Bluegrass burning begins

Fields ignited first on tribal lands; practice starts elsewhere Sept. 2

The annual torching of bluegrass fields has begun in North Idaho.

Farmers set fire to 140 acres on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation on Monday – the first of about 35,000 acres of bluegrass that will be burned on the reservation this year.

Today’s forecast calls for favorable smoke-dispersal conditions, though a burn decision won’t be made until this morning, said Marc Stewart, a spokesman for the tribe.

Farther south, on the Nez Perce Reservation, crop residue burning began two weeks ago. Outside of the reservations, field burning will not begin until Sept. 2.

Bluegrass farmers burn fields in late summer to get rid of straw and spur new growth in the perennial plants. Without burning, bluegrass seed yields drop dramatically, forcing farmers to use more fertilizer and rely on intensive tilling practices, according to agricultural research.

But the particles produced by the smoke are dangerous to people with breathing problems. In recent years, at least two deaths were blamed on field burning, according to a lawsuit by Safe Air for Everyone, a Sandpoint group, which was filed in conjunction with the American Lung Association.

Last year, the lawsuit halted field burning in North Idaho outside of Indian reservations. After negotiations among farmers, state officials and clean-air activists, the Environmental Protection Agency allowed field burning to resume under rigorous new guidelines.

“The first priority is protecting air quality and public health,” said Mary Anderson, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s smoke management program coordinator.

The new plan shifts field burning oversight from the Department of Agriculture to DEQ. Smoke is monitored more carefully, and field burning can’t be allowed when air quality approaches or exceeds 75 percent of the national standards for particulates, Anderson said. The public can also get access to information on when and where fields are burning.

The new rules were published Aug. 1 in the federal register, allowing field burning to begin after Labor Day, Anderson said.

Reach Becky Kramer at (208) 765-7122 or by e-mail at