Where there’s smoke, there’s spotters
firstname.lastname@example.org Environment Canterbury’s smoke spotters just want people to change the way they’re heating their homes.
Yes, it’s that time of year again. Winter has arrived, the fires get sparked up, and Timaru records some of the worst air pollution readings in the country.
So what can be done about it? Well, people can change the way they heat their homes. But that’s easier said than done.
So Environment Canterbury, which is tasked with the role of monitoring and improving the region’s air pollution, has decided to take it to ground level. In short, they’re checking chimneys.
Thursday was an opportunity to accompany ECan’s Timaru operations manager Judith EarlGoulet and air quality officer Mark Bourassa on a smoke spotting operation in Timaru. It’s all about education, they say. ‘‘We want people to change their behaviours,’’ Earl-Goulet says.
In order to do that they follow a simple scientific procedure. Armed with an LED torch and a special thermal imaging camera, they drive Timaru’s streets shining a light on chimneys.
If they spot one that is smoking excessively, they monitor it for 15 minutes. If it’s still smoking after that length of time, they place a flyer in the letterbox. The flyer lists ways to start a fire.
It also has contact details for ECan’s ‘‘better burning’’ advisers. On request, these advisers can provide a demonstration of how to heat your home better.
‘‘It could be all sorts of things they’re not doing right. Sometimes it’s the wrong kind of wood being used, sometimes it’s an older burner, sometimes it’s the way they’ve been burning their wood,’’ Earl-Goulet says.
Bourassa says it often takes a while for the smoke to dissipate. Judith Earl-Goulet
‘‘You can go from a big billowing cloud to a fine little wisp,’’ he says.
It takes less than five minutes to spot the first consistently smoky chimney. Bourassa had hoped the smoke would clear in time from the Gibson St property but after 15 minutes it had not.
‘‘They probably need a minor tweak,’’ Bourassa says.
There is more success with another Gibson St property, which starts out smoking, but quickly dies down. Bourassa measures the temperature of the heat coming through the flume. It’s in excess of 40 degrees.
‘‘Great! A good hot fire,’’ he says, approvingly.
But do they think this monitoring will actually improve people’s behaviours, or will it simply scare them into not burning at all?
They point out that during the last winter monitoring season they left flyers with more than 280 properties in Timaru.
When they revisited them later in the winter, only 43 needed to be reminded again.
That, they say, suggests the ‘‘educative’’ approach is working.
However, there has been some opposition from the Timaru public.
The South Canterbury Regional Air Plan (Scrap) liaison committee, set up in response to last year’s kerfuffles over changes to air quality rules in the region, thinks the smoke spotters should be scrapped.
‘‘ECan unfortunately ignore Timaru’s unique topographical features, cold winter temperatures, availability of dry wood, need for warm dry homes, higher number of ageing residents but maybe have regulated for a utopian existence,’’ a recent Scrap letter said.
Earl-Goulet concedes that Timaru’s topographical features mean that the smog from fires can get caught in a thick atmospheric layer. On wet and windy nights, the teams don’t tend to go out on patrol; not just for their own comfort, but because there will be less smoke trapped in the air. So, why are they doing this? Well, it’s about connecting people, and moving towards a less smoky Timaru.
‘‘We don’t want people to be afraid of burning. We want them to burn better and keep warmer.
‘‘If people make contact, and talk to us, then our staff can understand what is required to improve home heating,’’ says Earl-Goulet.
‘‘When we’ve had interactions, people soon understand what we’re about.’’
Environment Canterbury’s Judith Earl-Goulet checks a Timaru chimney for tell-tale puffs of pollution.