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State warns against burning yard waste 

By Lauren Casey

INDIANAPOLIS – As gardens go brown and leaves fall to the ground, Hoosiers are headed out to clean up their mounting yard debris.

But the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) is urging residents not to burn their piles – even if it's allowed locally – and to find healthier alternatives when disposing of their yard waste.

"There are so many good, environmentally-friendly alternatives to burning," said IDEM Commissioner Thomas Easterly. "It just makes sense for Hoosiers to put away their matches."

State law bans burning trash in all areas of Indiana. And burning of any kind is banned in Lake, Porter, Clark and Floyd counties.

But state law allows the open burning of leaves, branches, twigs, and other yard debris in most parts of the state. In some areas – particularly in larger cities – local ordinances prohibit burning.

Jennifer Simmons, spokeswoman for the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, said the group does not track how many communities have burn bans. But she said they are usually linked to more populated areas.

Those local ordinances sometimes ban the fires completely. Or, they specify the conditions needed for a proper burn, such as using clean wood products in an elevated, well-ventilated container with a mesh cover. A fire extinguisher should be nearby in case the fire gets out of hand, officials said.

Still, state and environmental officials caution against it. And IDEM's public information officer, Robert Elstro, said the department receives about 206 open burning complaints on average each year.

Smoke from open burning is harmful to not only the environment, but also the people living nearby, IDEM officials said. The smoke includes carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, fine particles, and ozone-forming chemicals.

Wet leaves or branches can cause the amount of these chemicals in a fire to multiply.

Roger Johnson, president of the Indiana Firefighter's Association said that open burning also causes problems for firefighters.

"On a day with a lot of wind the fire can get away from them so fast," said Johnson. "They can't control it because it can get very big very fast."

Yard waste fires are more likely to get out of control in the spring because there are more dead plants and ground foliage left from winter months, Johnson said.

But he said that although these types of land fires can get dangerous quickly, "most people have pretty good judgment" when it comes to open burning.

There are alternatives. Many communities have leaf collection programs.

Mulching leaves and twigs with a lawnmower can help return nutrients to the grass. Composting the debris in a container or on the ground can great nutrient rich soil. And large branches and small trees chipped into smaller pieces can be used in flowerbeds to control weeds.

"Alternative debris disposal creates mulch and wood chips that can be used on your lawn and in your garden," Easterly said.

Alternatives to burning yard waste

Mulching: Mulch leaves and twigs by chopping them up with a lawnmower. This returns nutrients to the grass.

Composting: Pile grass clippings, leaves, branches and weeds in a container or on the ground. They will break down naturally into a nutrient-rich soil amendment. Cities, townships and counties have leaf collection programs if you don't have the space.

Chipping: Borrow or rent a chipper to chip up large branches and small trees. The wood chips can be spread around trees and flower beds to retain soil moisture and control weeds.

— Source: Indiana Department of Environmental Management

The above is one of an ongoing series of reports from the Indiana Statehouse by students at the Franklin College Pulliam School of Journalism.

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