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No-Burn holidays: A 4 part meditation on air pollution in the Valley of the Sun

Phoenix haze, as seen from South Mountain
Phoenix haze, as seen from South Mountain
Jason Rapp

As many in the Valley of the Sun no doubt noticed, the Maricopa County Air Quality Department declared Christmas and New Year’s (along with their antecedent Eves) as “no burn” days. Meaning that: those committed to celebrating the holidays in front of the hearth, with a wood-burning fire faced a possible fine of up to $250 if caught by regulators - who were purportedly trolling Valley neighborhoods for violators.

The above-linked articles outlining the official “no burn” pronouncements are unremarkable, albeit informative. We learn that persistent “stagnant” weather conditions exacerbated pre-existing heightened concentrations of PM-2.5 particulate air pollution – resulting in the issuance of high pollution advisories. Of particular concern: such air contamination is unsafe for Valley residents – especially children, the elderly, and those with heart and lung conditions.

Rather than focusing on the bare facts – as important as they will become – your correspondent would like to draw the reader’s attention to the user-posted comments appended to these articles, which have important implications for how society confronts complex environmental problems like air pollution. In short, phenomena such as poor air quality – widespread in nature and caused by a slew of interacting factors – require a solution dependent upon the understanding and action of the entire affected community.

In an AP article titledPhoenix’s no burn restrictions crimp celebrations”, a user-posted comment* follows, stating in part: “no crimp for us. In fact we are burning right now and will burn on Christmas day. It is our holiday tradition.” Similarly, in response to another AP article announcing the New Year’s no-burn advisory, a user comments that: “Maricpoa County bureaucrats know what’s best for us. Funny, I walked outside, took a breath, felt just fine.” Subsequently, another commenter claimed that: “this is a scam that DEQ pulls every year. No burning on Christmas Eve, Christmas, NYE or NY Day…Its just a load of [bunk] because they know a lot of people would burn otherwise so lets just ban it so we don’t have a problem.”

(*All of the quoted user comments are attributed on the linked pages, but because the purpose of this article is not to publicly call these folks out, all attributions have been removed. Suffice it to say, it can be assumed that these comments are representative of a general sentiment common to a certain proportion of Valley residents.)

In some respects, it is hard not to sympathize with the quoted commentators’ grievance. Celebrating the holidays in front of a seasonally-festive fire has powerful cultural currency, evoking warm nostalgic feelings of family and friends, gathered together. Not to mention the additional imagery of government regulators prowling neighborhoods in search of “no-burn” violators; which cannot help but pique animosity in any right-minded American.

Balanced against these sentiments are the best interests of the community as a whole. Phoenix’s poor air quality affects all residents of the Valley. The health effects associated with this poor air quality are real and must be factored in before some members within the community jump to the conclusion that we are the victims of bureaucratic overreach.

In the next installment: a compendium of evidence countering claims that no burn restrictions are a load of bunk…..

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