Three separate controlled burns – and a faulty weather forecast – came together to create a perfect storm of smoke over parts of Newnan Monday afternoon.
A definite haze of smoke lay over downtown Newnan and the Newnan High School area, and extended down Bullsboro Drive. One witness said that smoke seemed particularly heavy in the West Washington Street/Boone Drive/Temple Avenue area.
The three fires contributing to the smoke were a land burn at the Newnan Utilities compost facility on Quimby Jackson Road off Hwy. 34, debris burning using an “air curtain destructor” system at the construction site of the new Coweta County vehicle maintenance facility on Selt Road, and a landowner burning logs off Poplar Road near Piedmont Newnan Hospital.
The Georgia Forestry Commission issued a burn permit to the consultant doing the Quimby Jackson Road burn after doing computer modeling to make sure smoke conditions wouldn’t be problematic.
A smoke plot or “virtual smoke” model is done each day before burn permits are issued, said Terry Quigley, chief ranger for the Georgia Forestry Commission in Coweta. Permits are only issued if models show that smoke won't be a problem. The modeling is done to prevent situations like what occurred Monday.
The plot “tells us where the smoke is going to go and how far it is going to travel,” based on weather conditions, Quigley said. The smoke was supposed to rise 8,000 feet high, and any unhealthy smoke levels were supposed to stop short of Smokey Road.
“The smoke didn’t rise like it was supposed to,” Quigley said. “Most of the time it is right, but today something happened. It just settled down.”
“We learn from it and go forward and try to do better next time,” he said.
The “air curtain destructor” burn was also permitted, but smoke models aren’t done for those types of burns, because they aren’t supposed to create a smoke issue.
Air curtain destructor burns consist of a pit in the ground where the fire is built. A large blower, called an air curtain, is used to blow air over the pit. The curtain of air is supposed to contain the smoke, as long as the fire is burning below the level of the air curtain, Quigley said.
Smoke can occur, however, when more wood is added to the pit and the fuels rise above the level of the air curtain.
Normally, the smoke from an air curtain destructor fire isn’t enough to cause problems on its own, but coupled with the other fire, it did increase the problem, according to Quigley.
Crews from Georgia Forestry had to go out Monday morning to make the landowner on Poplar Road put out his fire, according to Quigley. The landowner did get a permit, but the large piles of logs can’t be burned that close to a hospital because of smoke problems.
It was taking several hours to get the fire completely out.
Nicole Dillon, communications specialist with Piedmont Newnan Hospital, said there were no problems with hospital patients related to the smoke. The hospital has the option to shut off the flow of outside air into the hospital in situations where there are air quality problems.
The fresh air flow was cut off as a precaution, Dillon said. The emergency department didn't see any cases of problems related to the smoke, she said.
Coweta 911 reported that there were several calls Monday reporting the smoke, but no medical calls related to it.