Air Quality series, part 3: Nat’l Air Quality Awareness Week and the alternatives to open burning |

Air Quality series, part 3: Nat’l Air Quality Awareness Week and the alternatives to open burning

Sharon Sullivan
Courtesy photo
Staff Photo |


Mesa County Health Department promotes alternatives to open burning such as turning the plant material into compost or depositing materials through the city’s free, annual Spring Clean-up program, which has already taken place this year.

Garbage and household trash, scrap wood, panels, fencing and construction or demolition materials are all prohibited from being burned; neither are leaves, grass trimmings, trees and limbs greater than 1 inch in diameter allowed. Rubber, plastic and waste petroleum materials are also banned.

Grand Valley residents are allowed to burn — with a permit from their local fire department — tree trimmings no larger than 1 inch in diameter, dry weeds and garden waste.

However, the health department and people who need clean air to breathe would rather you didn’t burn those items either.

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — It is National Air Quality Awareness Week (April 29-May 3), and coincidentally also Spring Open Burn season in Mesa County — a three-month period when both residents and agriculturists are allowed to openly burn dry organic matter of a certain size.

The Mesa County Health Department monitors the Grand Valley’s air quality, including particulates — a major source of air pollution locally. Fires, whether wild or intentionally set, are a source of particulate pollution.

Particulates can cause serious health problems, when the tiny specks of dust settle in people’s lungs.

Mesa County Air Quality Specialist Ed Brotsky has called particulate pollution a “pressing concern” in Mesa County — especially during wintertime inversions when the polluted air gets trapped low in the valley for days or weeks at a time.

Springtime causes issues as well, when open burning is allowed (March 1 through May 31). Local respiratory therapists say they see more people with breathing problems during burning season.

Smoke, whether from a forest fire or due to intentional residential or agricultural burning is a major irritant for people with respiratory problems, said Grand Junction allergist Dr. William Scott.

Spring burn season is “also a time of heavy pollens — a double whammy,” Scott said. “I would love to ban burning, but I’m not a rancher.”

Unlike urbanites, active commercial “for profit” farmers and ranchers are exempt from the open burning permit requirement, although some fire districts require burning permits for safety reasons.

People who burn are also liable for any fires that get out of control.

“We see a number of out-of-control fires — 20 to 30 — every year,” said Grand Junction Fire Department spokesman Mike Page.

As an alternative to burning, the health department advocates composting plant materials — whether in your own backyard, or at the Organic Materials Composting Facility, 3071 Hwy 50.

“Most organic materials are accepted at the composting facility,” Brotsky said. “Not only are you keeping smoke out of the air and reducing your liability in case the fire gets out of hand (several do each year),” you’re also helping to produce a useful product and keeping waste out of the landfill.”

The Organic Materials Composting Facility is open Tuesday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Residents can drop off their unwanted plant materials there for free or purchase nutrient-rich, ready-to-use compost.

Items not accepted for composting include painted or treated wood, paper, cardboard, lumber and pallets and tamarisk due to its high salt content.


Many farmers say burning is a tool they need because it’s cheaper and quicker than hauling it to the composting facility.

Some agriculturalists, like Bruce Talbott, orchard manager of Talbott Mountain Gold in Palisade, say they do a lot less burning than in the past, when it used to be common to burn all the brush generated in the orchards.

In recent years Talbott has turned to flailing, a threshing machine that grinds the brush that is then left on the ground as mulch.

Larger pieces of wood are collected for firewood.

Other plant waste generated at the farm is burned on site. To haul it to the composting site would require a lot of diesel fuel and man hours, Talbott said.

Still, “there’s been a transition over the last 50 years from an old burn culture,” Talbott said. “Twenty to 30 percent of that mass gets burned now.”

Farmers also formerly used “smudge pots” for heating orchards during cold nights — a practice that would leave a “black cloud hanging over Grand Junction,” Talbott said.

Wind machines, a more economical solution, replaced those smudge pots.

“Burning is still an important tool, just not as important as years ago,” due to best agricultural management practices, he said.


Farmers who burn entire fields could harvest their materials instead, according to retired county extension agent Curtis Swift, who has a master’s degree in horticulture and a Ph.D. in plant pathology,

Swift said burning whole fields will eventually destroy the soil, and that people “ought to burn in the proper way.”

Swift is a proponent of harvesting the plant material by driving a combine over the field once, breaking it up into smaller pieces and then burning it in a low-oxygen environment to produce charcoal.

The fire is covered with either soil or metal with a small opening for the gases to escape. The final product is called biochar, which is worked into the soil.

“That charcoal is pulverized and spread back on the field,” Swift said. “There will be some carbon lost to the atmosphere but the majority of it will be contained.”

“Studies show a 20 to 200 percent increase in (crop) yield,” Swift said.

Swift also addressed the issue of burning irrigation ditches to get rid of the weeds.

He said while an initial burn may be necessary, landowners should then control plant growth by spraying the weeds with a pesticide.

“There are a lot of organic pesticides,” Swift said.

Citizens for Clean Air

During National Air Quality Awareness Week, the Colorado Department of Health posted daily tips and information to its website regarding air quality and how it affects human health.

Viewers can learn more about particle pollution when they click on Monday’s post. Tuesday’s tip is about asthma. Viewers can read about heart health on Wednesday’s posting, and fires and particulate pollution is the topic for Thursday.

Today’s post is titled “How to Reduce Particle Pollution and Improve Your Health.”

The link to the website is

Since February, Citizens for Clean Air, a non-partisan group of citizens working cooperatively to solve air quality problems in the valley, have met regularly at various downtown locations.

“It’s open to anybody who wants to work on air issues,” member Karen Sjoberg said.

One of the group’s goals is to support the work of the Mesa County Air Quality Planning Committee.

To contact the group, call 970-242-1054 or email

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