Local burn code turns 35-years-old

Truckee Meadows neighborhood during inversion
Published: Nov. 7, 2023 at 5:03 PM PST
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - It hasn’t happened yet, but every winter here in the Truckee Meadows we experience an inversion.

“What happens is the air above us heats up faster than the air on the ground,” says Ben McMullen, air quality specialist with Northern Nevada Public Health. “And that kind of traps all the pollutants.”

Car exhaust, and particulates coming from woodburning stoves are just some of those pollutants.

It doesn’t take long for the Truckee Meadows’ air to get dirty and unhealthful. 35 years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency placed particulates under federal standards for air quality. They came to the then Washoe County Health District and informed them our area was not in compliance, and they needed to fix that.

That’s when the health district came up with the burn code: Green, Yellow and Red.

“Green for burning is allowed,” says McMullen. “Yellow for burning is discouraged, and Red for burning is disallowed.”

Air quality experts met with local meteorologists and asked if they alert the public to the burn code every night from October 31st through February. The stations bought into the program as weathermen and women understood what was happening to our air.

Soon though Public Health came up with another program they say was the turning point.

Homeowners were offered rebates if they handed in their old, outdated stove and purchased a new cleaner burning model. The program ended in 2014, but nearly 200 dirty stoves were removed from their homes. In a continued effort to get the old stoves out of homes the stoves must be removed and can be replaced when a home is sold locally.

“Super successful there at reducing pollution in the wintertime,” says McMullen of the result.

Public Health says when the code goes yellow, there’s almost an 80% compliance with local residents. When the code is Red, the compliance is higher than that. Public Health feeds pretty good about their burn code program from 35 years ago. They think they have a handle on the particulate problem in the winter.

Now the problem is the summer with wildfires. Of which they have very little control.