Just how harmful is that backyard fire? What our air quality expert found will alarm you

May 5, 2022

Brendon Haggerty crouched down beside a Solo Stove fire pit and stacked a few pieces of well-cured wood. He crumpled sheets of newsprint and lit the flame. Within moments, his air quality monitor began to beep, as smoke from the flames blew across his backyard, causing the air quality to drop from healthy to unhealthy and shoot right through hazardous, until levels of particulate maxed out the devices’ ability to measure.

Healthy Homes and Communities Program Supervisor Brendon Haggerty measures levels of particulate coming from a single backyard fire.

His brief demonstration proved what health officials have been warning: that backyard fire might feel cozy on a cool spring night. But even fire pits marketed “efficient” or “smokeless” are not harmless. 

In support of Air Quality Awareness Week, Multnomah County air quality expert Brendon Haggerty welcomed reporters at his home Wednesday, May 4, to demonstrate just how much particulate these home fires emit, and to discuss the health effects of smoke pollution in our neighborhoods.

“Most of us probably don’t imagine that one fire could be a problem, but to a vulnerable neighbor it really could. So even if that fire brings some people closer together, chances are someone lives nearby who is going to suffer the consequences.”

Wood smoke is a major source of air pollution in Multnomah County, which has the worst air quality in the State. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality reports 12.8 million pounds of particle pollution come from wood burning alone, comparable to the amount of pollution released from a wildfire. These particles are linked to diseases and health conditions such as asthma, Alzheimers, cancer, diabetes, preterm births, and premature death.

In February, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners adopted a year-round wood smoke ordinance, extending the County’s seasonal ordinance prohibiting wood burning on poor air quality days, and removing exemptions for EPA-certified stoves, which independent studies show may not meet federal standards for low wood smoke emissions.

That means on the county’s worst air quality days, a person who burns wood could earn a citation and fine. Exemptions remain for residents with low incomes and in situations where wood burning is the primary source of someone’s heat, for religious purposes, or during an emergency.

On this sunny Wednesday birds chirped as people gathered in Haggerty’s yard as he prepared the fire. He borrowed a neighbor's Solo Stove, a device designed to burn more efficiently and emit less particulate. But within seconds of starting the fire, his air monitor readings had maxed out. 

The air quality in his yard was, at that moment, as poor as  during the peak of the September 2020 wildfires that spread across the state.

Haggerty said now is the time to protect our health, well ahead of wildfire season. Summer is a time not only when wildfires threaten our health, but we also see seasonally higher levels of ozone, which exacerbate existing health conditions.

“If we can keep our air cleaner now, we have healthier people who are better able to cope with wildfires,” he said. 

“Apart from today’s demonstration, I choose not to burn for my toddler and the other kids in the neighborhood,” Haggerty said. “If you know people who are sensitive on your street or in your own home, think about them before you burn.”