Brian Moench: Everyone has taken up smoking in Summit County

Forest Service idea of preventing wildfires is poisoning the air.

Everyone in Summit County has taken up smoking — Mormons, non-Mormons, infants, adults, pregnant mothers, athletes, the elderly, everyone. Not tobacco, wood smoke. And that’s worse.

Under the guise of wildfire prevention, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest Service officials are busy “thinning” forests in the county with chain saws, creating thousands of piles of dead and live trees and setting them on fire. The smoke has been blanketing Summit County for the last two years.

Wood smoke is the worst type of pollution the average person ever inhales, more toxic than tobacco smoke. Wood smoke consists of uniquely small pollution nanoparticles. The smaller the particle, the more easily it is inhaled, the more easily the blood stream picks it up from the lungs, and ultimately the more easily it penetrates and damages every organ system.

Magnifying the hazard, the smoke contains a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Burning 10 pounds of wood in a fireplace for one hour emits as many polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) as tens of thousands of packs of cigarettes. Wood smoke easily seeps into even the most tightly sealed residences where it lingers long after the burning is over, perpetuating exposure.

Years ago, our physicians group convinced Summit County Health Department to ban fireplaces in new home construction. We worked with the EPA to help 32 Summit County families using wood stoves, exchange them for cleaner heat sources, to the benefit of the entire community. Now this achievement in Summit County is being smothered by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS).

Much like the Bureau of Land Management often behaves as a subsidiary of the cattle industry, the USFS has a long history of protecting the timber, fossil fuel and ski industries instead of the forests. (Like their recent approval of the Uinta Basin Railway, Utah’s own fossil fuel carbon bomb.)

The narrative promoted by land management agencies that thinning the forests is necessary or even useful to control wildfires is controversial at best, with the bulk of the supportive research funded by the timber industry or USFS.

While removing biomass surrounding mountain homes reduces fire risk, large scale “forest thinning” is a different matter. Over 40 studies from different countries contradict conventional wisdom that “fuel reduction logging” controls wildfires.

In the largest study ever done, the authors concluded the more forest “thinning,” the more quickly and intensely a wildfire burns.

“Dense, mature forests tend to burn less … because they have higher canopy cover and more shade, which creates a cooler, moister microclimate. The higher density of trees of all sizes can act as a windbreak, buffering gust-driven flames. Thinning and other activities that remove trees, especially mature trees, reverse those effects, creating hotter, drier, and windier conditions.”

Because no crystal ball reveals the time or location of future wildfires, unless thinning is done on an impossibly massive scale, it has little chance of happening at the right time or place to minimize a wildfire.

If there is legitimate debate about forest thinning, there is no debate that setting hundreds of forest bonfires is creating a pollution and public health nightmare in Summit County. Limiting bonfires to “good air quality” days is false comfort, a complete misunderstanding of the medical research.

There is no safe level of pollution. In fact, pollution released into a back ground of clean air actually does more damage to public health than the same amount of pollution released into an already polluted airshed, because the dose response curve between pollution and disease is steeply hyperbolic, not linear.

Intentionally cutting and burning trees is also climate malpractice. Per BTU produced, wood combustion releases 30% more CO2 than coal, 2.5 times more than natural gas. The global carbon equation of just the next few years will determine whether or not temperature rises exceed 1.5 degree C, the threshold at which scientists warn of an irreversible spiral into climate disaster because of positive feed-back loops and atmospheric tipping points.

Killing carbon absorption of live trees and releasing the carbon by burning them, just for a “theoretical, possible, perhaps, maybe some-day” less intense future wildfire is a fool’s bargain, not supported by any evidence.

For the forest service to be igniting countless bonfires is a stunning sacrifice of human and climate health for a highly dubious pursuit of “forest health,” and an ironic example of “not seeing the forest through the trees.”

Dr. Brian Moench | president, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment

Brian Moench, M.D., Salt Lake City, is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and board chair of Doctors and Scientists Against Wood Smoke Pollution, an international coalition seeking to end wood burning.