Utah burn ban ignites outrage over ‘basic freedoms’

The right to burn versus the right to breathe.


Over 500 people showed up at the historic Cache County courthouse in Logan, Utah, Jan. 21 for a public hearing organized by the state’s Division of Air Quality (DAQ). They tried to squeeze in to a courtroom with a capacity of 160. A line formed out the courtroom doors, down the hallway, outside, and into a parking lot, where on a flatbed truck, wood-burning stoves sat on display, a warm orange glow flickering through their glass doors. This was as good a spot as any for residents to warm up while waiting for their turn to give comments on a proposed seasonal wood burning ban in the county.

The ban would prohibit the use of solid fuel burning devices for over four months every winter in seven northern Utah counties. The Utah DAQ is accepting comments through Feb. 9 and plans to make a decision or revise the rule before the beginning of the 2015/2016 winter inversion season.

Salt Lake City suffers smoggy conditions, particularly under a winter inversion layer, which traps particulates close to the ground. Courtesy Flickr user mateoutah.

The folks who brought the stoves to the tailgate were part of a recently formed coalition called “Utahns for Responsible Burning.” With backing from the fireplace industry, they want to exempt Environmental Protection Agency-certified, low-emissions stoves from the proposed ban. They see this exemption as a “common-sense solution” that will result in cleaner air and “preserve basic freedoms.” 

Utahns for Responsible Burning are not an unruly bunch, but it’s this second focus of their mission -- to preserve basic freedoms -- that attracted the large crowd of concerned citizens to the meeting. They created a slick website with pre-written comments for the DAQ that users could submit with one click and made sure the word got out about the seven public hearings. “This is not about wood burning,” said one resident going on the record to oppose the ban. “This is about rights.”

If it passes as proposed this would be the strictest wood burning ban in the nation. To combat exceptionally high levels of particle pollution that form during winter inversions, Utah Governor Gary Herbert proposed the ban and tasked the DAQ with probing public opinion. Several northern Utah counties are out of compliance with federal air quality standards. Study after study has linked these pollution episodes to serious health problems, including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease, stroke and early death. 

The Utah Division of Air Quality already bans wood burning on so-called “red-air days,” when pollution levels exceed federal standards, but DAQ Director Bryce Bird says they still find wood smoke particles on their detection filters on these days, so there is clearly a problem with enforcement. An all-out ban seems a simple solution to curb these emissions. 

Bird has already worked to assure the public, via a local call-in radio show, saying the DAQ would be reviewing each and every comment. His personal opinion is that it’s unlikely that the state will finalize the proposed rule as-is after considering the public feedback. “The result will be rule-making action informed by public opinion,” he said. But it’s hard to imagine a satisfying rule informed by the opinions of an angry mob, the fireplace industry, clean air activists, and citizens who value their self-reliance above all else.

At the Cache County hearing, only two residents voiced their support for the ban. One, an older woman with lung cancer, was booed by the crowd when she said that the ban would ease some of the suffering of her disease. A man who said his wife’s and son’s asthma had worsened since moving to Logan was jeered and told to get rid of his car and “ride a horse” or and move his family out of the valley. 

There will be public hearings in each of the seven affected counties during the 40-day comment period. Five of the seven have already taken place. They’ve been like the Cache County hearing -- with overwhelming opposition and anti-government rhetoric. Many residents believe that the decision to ban wood burning has already been made without regard to their opinions. “We already know you’re going to implement the ban,” said one Cache County resident, “so you should know right now that we’re not going to comply.”

Jennifer Pemberton reports on community and the environment for Utah Public Radio. She writes about the West from her home in Logan, Utah. 

High Country News Classifieds