Air quality study could impact power plant, car use one day

hduncan@macon.comDecember 7, 2012 

Air experts at Georgia Tech have launched a three-year project to predict how individual controlled forest fires affect daily air quality.

The research, funded by a $500,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, could serve as a model for other states trying to balance two important duties: protecting people from air pollution and protecting them from wildfire.

And eventually it could have broader implications for managing power plants and auto pollution differently on days when air quality is poor.

Michael Chang, who is coordinating the air quality aspects of the study for Georgia Tech, said the goal is to better predict when it’s safe for controlled burns, which preserve forest health and prevent buildup of dead wood that makes wildfires more destructive.

Although Georgia Tech has been creating air quality models since 1996, only in the last few years has the Georgia Forestry Commission computerized its burn permits into a database, Chang said.

Until then, a group of controlled burns might be permitted for one day in the same area by regional foresters in different offices. Although they would not be significant separately, together they could harm air quality.

Now, Georgia Tech forecasters can look at burn permits in real time, automating them into their existing models, perhaps flagging days when burning conditions are good but acreage should be limited to protect people from breathing unsafe air.

“More importantly, it might open up new windows for when we can burn, because we know prescribed burning is a valuable system for managing lands, particularly in long-leaf pine forests and other Georgia ecosystems,” Chang said.

The longleaf pine forests, which once covered a large swath of Georgia, depend on fire and host an unusually large number of species, including many that are now threatened or endangered.

Now, prescribed burns are banned in 54 counties around Macon and Atlanta from May until the end of September, effectively allowing burns during only half of the year. If air quality models were perfected, some burns could be allowed on days during that blackout period when the atmosphere is likely to be able to handle the pollution.

“It marks a new type of air quality management that we haven’t done in the state,” Chang said. “In the past, there’s always been this kind of heavy-handed regulatory requirement,” but this would add flexibility.

Targeting power plants, cars, too

And it could open the door to similar flexible management of air pollution from power plants and cars, Chang said.

For example, the state could work out a system to tell Georgia Power to focus power generation at certain plants on certain days. On days when air quality is expected to be poor, the company could burn coal primarily at plants downwind of state population centers.

“Right now, those decisions are based wholly on economic factors: Which costs Georgia Power less to run?” Chang said. “But what if you could make those decisions based on maximizing health of the people in the region? How might that change where you choose to fire up that power plant? Or drive your car? Where you live? Where you build parks?”

But he noted this ability might have a “dark side”: Dirty, old power plants might be able to run longer if companies figure out how to operate them in a way that allows them to continue polluting, but mostly at times when the impact is less.

“Is that a good thing?” Chang mused. “Maybe not. We’ll have to think about that.”

When it comes to prescribed burning, the refined forecasting could be a boon, forest managers say.

“I’m hoping the models will find prescribed burning isn’t having enough impact to create a need for a five-month ban on forestry burning,” said Frank Sorrells, chief of forest protection for the Georgia Forestry Commission. “Because the benefits far outweigh the effects on air quality.”

Given that there are 5,000 to 8,000 wildfires a year, Sorrells said increasing the amount of controlled burns generally reduces the number and intensity of wildfires. Controlled burns also reduce overcrowding that can leave trees stressed and vulnerable to insects and disease.

Sorrells said the forestry commission has spent about $80,0000, mostly with federal grants, on further improving its technology to allow real-time mapping of all fires in the state, as well as the location of planes and fire suppression equipment. He said he expects completing the effort will cost about as much more.

Nathan Klaus, a wildlife biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, coordinates prescribed fires on state-controlled land in Middle Georgia. He noted that historically, Georgia’s forests evolved with frequent fires during the growing season, including all the months of the burn ban. Controlled burns during warm months can halve the amount of time needed to kill the roots of hardwood trees that encroach on longleaf pine forests.

And Klaus said it’s been hard to restore grasslands at Panola Mountain State Park south of Atlanta because the grasses won’t set seeds until after a late spring fire -- almost an impossibility since the burn ban.

Some rare Georgia animals are even harmed by fires during the winter, when most controlled burns are now scheduled.

For example, gopher frogs, like those found around fishless ponds in Taylor County, mate during winter and have been documented being killed by winter fires, Klaus said.

It’s also tough for federal wildlife managers to get all the burns needed on the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge north of Macon and nearby Oconee National Forest.

“You can’t burn them at the same time because they’re so big and close together,” Klaus said. “If this model could give them more opportunities, that kind of information could really help them.”

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