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Column: Thinking about burning your fallen leaves? Here are some reasons you shouldn't
Rudi Kiefer

In Washington, Oregon and California, rain and snow appeared last weekend. This helped prevent further spread of the huge, still active wildfires. The National Wildfire Coordinating Group shows maps of blazes all the way from the coast into Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. In the three coastal states alone, fires ravaged more than 7 million acres. Half of Talent, Oregon, a town comparable to Flowery Branch, has burned down to the ground.

Here in Georgia, on the other side of the continent, tree leaves have been coming down heavily. Even though we don’t have the fire weather conditions of the Western states right now, there are numerous reasons not to burn fallen leaves. Avoiding the hazard of starting a catastrophic wildfire is the most obvious.

Another reason is air pollution. Smoke from leaf fires is romantic to some, and a nuisance to most. We’re in the season of nighttime temperature inversions, which spread smoke instead of dispersing it. In the dry air of fall, the mercury drops quickly after sunset when there’s no “thermal blanketing effect” from clouds. Heat that the ground received from the sun now radiates back out into space. This cools the bottom air layer, which hasn’t retained much heat to start with, even more. Within a short time, there’s cool or even cold air trapped on the ground. It’s not miles high, but still tall enough to cover all the buildings and neighborhoods in the area. Above it, where passenger jets travel, is warmer air. Cold air cannot rise over warmer air, so any smoke and pollution originating at ground level will stay within the inversion layer. Wind won’t disperse it, it’ll only spread it around more. 

A third reason not to burn fallen leaves is that they’re nature’s fertilizer. They add nutrients as they rot. They also improve the soil from its dense clay texture into a plant-friendlier one. Bagging and discarding leaves with the weekly trash won’t do any good. Instead, they can be worked into flower or vegetable beds or placed around the root circle of the trees to fertilize next year’s growth. A heavy layer of leaves also helps keep weeds down. 

Raking the dead leaves is hard work. I find it easier and more fun to gather and place them where they are needed with my hurricane-force (115 mph) electric leaf blower. 

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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