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Fires and power plants

Sep 7, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

The Alpine Lake Fire must emit more pollution in a day than a power plant does in a year

Significant controversy has been generated this year by government mandates requiring power plants that use coal to meet strict new air-pollution standards. If they don't, then they will be shut down.

Setting aside the merits or demerits of cleaner coal, idling power plants, and the impacts on the Wyoming coal industry of these new regulations, consider a question instead.

If the government truly is concerned with protecting the quality of the air we breathe, why are so many wildfires allowed to burn with minimal effort to extinguish them?

All week long in the Riverton Valley, smoke from the nearby Alpine Lake Fire has hung over the city for hours at a time. On both Wednesday and Thursday this week, ash was visible in the air. The sun becomes a darkened orange ball in the evening sky, and anyone who is outside for even a few minutes smells like a campfire for the rest of the night.

The following is not a conclusion backed by scientific data, but simply an observation: The Alpine Lake fire must have emitted more harmful pollution to the air in Fremont County in the past two days than one of the offending coal power plants emits in a year. Yet we stand still for one while wringing our hands and writing new laws for the other.

This is not a defense of polluting industrial installations. There can be no defense of deliberately fouling the air. The realistic regulation of air pollution during the production of energy is not a radical or even unreasonable requirement. And if it promotes the use of cleaner energy at reasonable costs and equivalent power capacity while reducing the nation's reliance on oil pumped in unstable foreign countries, then it is difficult to find fault with it over the long term.

Nor is this a naive belief that every wildfire could be extinguished in short order, nor even that it ought to be. There is powerful ecological evidence that overgrown sections of forest and brush need to be cleared periodically, and fire is the way that nature has accomplished this for eons.

Many fires are too big to combat effectively, hence the firefighting strategy of containment, when a fire line is established on the perimeter of the fire so that it can grow to a certain size and no larger. Fires can spread with stunning speed under the right conditions, and often the best even a big fire crew can do is keep the flames from reaching a particular spot while allowing it to spread elsewhere.

But there are fires that are detected early and could be fought or even extinguished in relatively short order, but are allowed to burn instead. The rationale for this decision given most often is that fires are left alone because they "don't threaten human lives or structures." Firefighters do what they can with limited resources. In a season like this one, they can be stretched to the brink of their human capacity.

Again, all perfectly well and good. No complaints about firefighters here. But when a fire fills residential areas far and wide with smoke thick enough to require a broom to brush the ashes off the sidewalk, when the burn in the nose and lungs can be felt, when sunlight is filtered to the points that temperatures fall, then surely it is a health hazard on par with a power plant operated by coal -- or worse.

Our newspaper has covered enough fires to understand fully that the scale of many of them is so great that phenomenal quantities of smoke will be released into the air no matter what we do. But when firefighters battle heroically to save a garage with a boat in it in one place, while the lungs of every resident in a different area draw in razor sharp smoke particulates with every breath, the human hazard of the latter must be at least as significant as the former.

No man-made industry would be allowed to operate if it choked an entire valley with health-altering smoke week after week. Many fires can't be fought effectively. But there are some that can, or could be if our government committed itself to the job. The federal vow to protect citizens from air pollution ought to be re-examined to see if it might also include sufficient money and manpower to protect us from wildfire smoke to a larger extent than it does.

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