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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Idaho

Field-stubble burning may start today

The annual burning of bluegrass stubble on Rathdrum Prairie could begin at 11 a.m. today, sending smoke skyward while preparing the fields for next season’s crop of grass seed.

On the eve of burning, clean-air activists are demanding the state of Idaho share the precise locations of the burns “so people have a chance to run for their lives,” said Patti Gora, director of the Sandpoint-based group Safe Air For Everyone.

The state says such specific information is private and exempt from public-records laws. Regularly updated information, including size of the permitted burns, is posted on the Idaho Department of Agriculture’s Web site, said agency spokesman Wayne Hoffman.

“We’ve gone out of our way to provide people with information as allowed by state law,” he said.

Currently, the Web site lists 1,800 acres on Rathdrum Prairie as having received preliminary approval for burning. Another 1,000 acres on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation also are approved for burning today. The decision was made Monday afternoon after officials had analyzed the latest weather and air-quality data.

But before any fields are set afire, another review will take place this morning. If winds are unfavorable or if there’s too much wildfire smoke, the burning could be called off.

Much of North Idaho and Eastern Washington was under a golden haze Monday thanks to smoke from extensive wildfires in Alaska and Canada, said Dan Redline, air-quality specialist for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. The smoke was blown in on an unusual summertime northwest flow. Clearer air is expected later in the week, providing the opportunity for more favorable field burning conditions, Redline said.

Bluegrass farmers say burning is the fastest, cheapest method of removing crop stubble. Burning also reduces the need for the use of chemical weed killers on the Rathdrum Prairie, which sits atop the region’s drinking water aquifer. Farmers grow grass seed for use in lawns and golf courses.

Although the state Legislature and Supreme Court have recently upheld the right of farmers to burn their fields, the booming real estate market has caused much of the smoke to vanish. Many of the grass fields have been plowed under and turned into subdivisions. But at least 1,800 acres of grass stubble on the prairie has been entered on a state burn registry this year.

The practice has been outlawed in Washington since the late 1990s, but the burning of wheat and other grain stubble continues. When a decision is made to allow the burning of a grain field, the exact location is given, said Karen Wood, outdoor burn unit manager for the Washington Department of Ecology.

That’s what clean-air activists want for North Idaho. Now, nothing more than county location and acreage is given. “That doesn’t tell you if a field’s going to go up across the street from your house. We need to know the exact location,” said Gora, director of SAFE.

On Friday, the group sent a letter to the state demanding the disclosure each morning of the locations of fields slated for burning. “Public access to these records is necessary to protect health and safety,” Gora wrote in the letter.

Gora said she received a phone call Monday from a woman in Rathdrum who is already having trouble breathing because of the wildfire smoke. The woman was desperate for more information. Gora, a resident of Pullman, said she knows the feeling. In fall, as her terminally ill husband received chemotherapy for cancer, smoke from burning fields made it unsafe for him to leave the hospital, she said.

“I was desperately trying to get my husband home for hospice care, trying to figure out is it safe to bring him home,” said Gora, her voice cracking with emotion. “It’s so cruel. I can’t imagine a more heartless, horrible system than what Idaho has got in place.”

Knowing the exact location of planned burns is even more important this year because of traffic delays of up to 40 minutes caused by large construction projects on U.S. Highway 95 between Coeur d’Alene and Moscow, Gora said. A long wait on a smoky highway could endanger drivers or passengers with breathing problems, she said.

Idaho Department of Agriculture spokesman Hoffman says the location of grass seed crop fields is protected by the same laws that allow the state to keep secret the details of certain project bids and private property appraisals. A 1992 exemption to the state’s public records law classifies the location of seed crop fields as a “trade secret.”

Hoffman said the state recently began including general location information on the state’s burn information hotline. “We’re putting that back on there because people have asked us to do that. … We’ve been active in providing the public with a fair amount of information. We’ve been providing them with the time the burn will take place, in general terms, and the location of the burn, in general terms.”

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