Open burning can cause harm to the surrounding ecosystem due to excessive smoke and particles that can affect the air, plant life, wildlife and more according to officials across Indiana.

Open burning includes trash, leaves or other materials that is burned outside, usually without barriers. According to City of Marion Parks & Recreation maintenance & operations assistant Taylere McCoy, many other options exist for homeowners with different pros and cons.

One of the alternatives is to let leaves remain where they fall, but a very slight chance remains that the leaves could smother the grass. Therefore, many homeowners decide to “mulch” their leaves by chopping them up, which can act as a fertilizer.

Brian Burbank, the Gas City street department superintendent mentioned this mode of ridding an area of fallen leaves in early October before the street department began to dispose of the leaves itself. “Mulching” leaves is an efficient way to dispose of unwanted leaves and comes highly recommended from different officials, but it can still affect the ecosystem negatively.

“I think the most popular option is to chop leaves up with a lawn mower. This will help leaves break down faster, add nutrients to the soil, and keep them from smothering the grass’” said McCoy. “However, the mower will likely chop up insects and other small animals, such as amphibians, along with the leaves. This is not ideal for those trying to protect wildlife.”

McCoy offered more recommendations for homeowners such as raking leaves into a pile that is in a less visible part of one’s yard or placing the leaves into a compost container. The leaves will break down over the winter and will provide compost to add to a garden or yard in the spring and summer.

Many homeowners still choose to burn leaves in the fall, which can have a negative effect on those who have health issues and may have trouble breathing when leaves and brush are burning in the area. Even burn barrels, which are more commonly used in the city, can release toxic smoke into the air.

Open burning can also lead to unforeseen fires that can spread to live plant life or even houses if left unattended.

“I have also seen instances where people leave fires burning unattended or put a burn pile at the edge of the woods, and they end up with a large section of live trees and shrubs burned as well. This can become very dangerous, especially when conditions are hot and dry,” said McCoy. “A patch of woods or someone’s home could easily catch on fire very quickly in these situations.”

Open burning is not an isolated issue. The smoke may not directly affect those burning leaves, but it can still have adverse effects throughout the county.

“Open burning is dangerous for everyone’s health and safety. Even if smoke blows away from your area, it is blowing into someone else’s,” said McCoy. “Fine particles in smoke settle onto our crop land and into our waterways. But this is especially an issue in Grant County because of our population dynamics.”

McCoy further quoted a statement from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) that furthers the severity of the effects as over 25 percent of the population falls into specific at-risk categories.

IDEM states that young children, people with existing health conditions and the elderly are at a heightened risk to the ill health effects of smoke.

If none of the alternatives work for one’s disposal needs, McCoy stressed that heightened burning etiquette is required. Homeowners need to contain the fire as much as possible, possibly with a burn barrel or fire pit lined with firebrick. The fire must be monitored closely. Gasoline should not be used to start the fire. McCoy recommends dry paper or charcoal and a lighter to start the fire as gasoline creates more pollutants and risks. Dry materials create less smoke than wet materials, and McCoy highlighted how burning trash is illegal to do in a burn pile and is excessively harmful.

“When you choose not to burn leaves and brush, you are not only helping yourself and your family, you are helping your neighbors. You are not just keeping your air cleaner, but also your water, your soil, and your food. Just think about how much smoke, ash, and other particulate matter is created each time you burn,” said McCoy. “Something to keep in mind is that usually, the thicker and darker the smoke, the more toxic it is to breathe in.”

McCoy recognizes that even one person’s decision to not openly burn leaves or other materials can impact the lives and ecosystem around them. Open burning can be a touchy topic as many do not know the adverse effects, but McCoy feels it should be talked about more.

“This is about finding ways to make our lives better. We all have a role to play in helping our communities become happier, healthy places to live. This may seem like a simple issue, but it can make all the difference,” said McCoy. “Even if you just make the choice not to burn once, you are making a difference. To others, this could mean one less asthma attack, one less coughing fit, or even just one more night they get to sleep with the windows open, enjoying the fresh air.”

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