Fired Up About Fire

Watching the air outside my window cloud up with smoke, I felt like a cranky old neighbor. I debated whether or not to write about something as mundane as my neighbor’s choices, which would probably impact them more than me. The urge to educate the public through this environmental blog won out. If there is anything I can do to change the culture of manicured lawns and the sentiment of America’s war on weeds (and leaves), then I suppose it is my duty. These pointers may help you decide what to do with those rapidly degrading pieces of autumn-colored foliage strewn across your lawn.

Let’s start with why one might want to set their beautiful leaves alight: a seasonal fire. Dried leaves catch fire quickly, almost violently. This makes them good fire starters, but also risks them catching alight too quickly and spreading, or your fire petering out before larger twigs can even begin to heat up. Though leaves do not bundle easily, they could be used to prolong your flame once it is going. Bark, cattail, or old bird nests might actually be better natural kindling materials than leaves in a Survivor or Naked and Afraid scenario. Of course, the vast majority of us are not making a fire because we are staving off hypothermia or trying to win a million dollars. The downside to this red, orange, and white spectacle is the impact it has on the climate, and more immediately, the air we breathe.

“When burned, trees generate more CO2 emissions per unit of energy generated than fossil fuels…For example…from Laganière et al. (2017), smokestack CO2 emissions from combusting wood for heat can be 2.5 times higher than natural gas.”

World Resources Institute

The World Resources Institute explains that burning trees releases carbon that would otherwise have remained stored in the forest. Pollutants produced by burning leaves can sometimes be worse than industrial air pollution because it gets released directly into residential areas and disperses over a much longer period of time, hanging around for everyone to inhale. Leaf fires are also different than wood fires, producing more particulate matter from organic acids, sugar alcohols, and n-alkanes, but less polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and levoglucosan. These unique tracers could be used by scientists or environmental managers to identify fire sources in the air. A key takeaway here is that leaf burning produces more organic matter, which accounts for the majority of particulate matter pollution, than wood burning.

Georgia 2017 County Fire Emissions from EPA.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) separates fires into three categories; agricultural field burning, prescribed fire, or wildfire. Since residential fires aren’t considered separately, I will lump them in as a type of agricultural field burning. Agricultural field burning predominantly produces carbon monoxide, followed by ammonia, particulate matter under 10 μm and 2.5 μm wide (PM10, PM2.5), volatile organic compounds, nitrous oxides, and a small amount of miscellaneous pollutants (i.e., sulfur dioxide, styrene, formaldehyde, black carbon, benzene, etc.).

Symptoms of exposure to pollutants from leaf burning includes asthma attacks, bronchitis, itchy eyes, headaches, chest pain, coughing, wheezing, heart attack, carbon monoxide poisoning, or death. Carbon monoxide is the leading pollutant by tons emitted in the state of Georgia. Emissions from fire sources increase as you get further south, towards Florida, as indicated by darker colored counties on the map. If this still doesn’t convince you to leave the leaves, think of all the time wasted by raking leaves that could instead be spent drinking cider, doing a corn maze, or spending time with friends & family.

Instead of burning the leaves that fall on your property this year, consider some alternative, environmentally conscious solutions from Conserve Energy Future listed below.

  • Insulate your house by collecting the leaves into bags and placing them in drafty corners.
  • Create art by turning leaves into a leaf mobile or wreath.
  • Compost them by wetting them and leaving them in a designated space. Add leftover vegetables, fruits, flowers, coffee or tea. Eventually add the mixture back into the soil to help plants grow.
  • Mulch them by shredding them with a mower. If necessary, wet them to keep them from blowing away in the wind. Leave them or disperse over your garden.
  • Admire them and simply leave them to recycle back into this earth.

I hope that this is an informative post that reminds people of the power we have with our own backyards to leave a better legacy on this planet. This is not at all a reason to hate on a neighbor. The leaf fire in the featured photo was quickly halted when Georgia’s version of a monsoon started pouring down, anyway. Thank you for reading!

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