Burning the valley

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By Brent Schanding

Pewee Valley officials are urging residents to avoid burning leaves after some have complained about noxious fumes and safety issues.

Volunteers with Pewee Valley Fire Protection District responded to a leaf fire Nov. 2 that blanketed the area in thick smoke for hours.

Fumes were widespread, fire chief Bob Hamilton said, but it was unclear where it originated because the flames quickly smoldered.   "The smoke wasn't dissipating because of lack of winds," he said. "You wouldn't have wanted to jog in the area," he added about the severity of the conditions.  

Some feared the toxic fumes from burnt leaves couldÕve compromised the health of neighbors, including more than 100 elderly residents at the townÕs Friendship Manor nursing home.

Leslie Butterfield, administrator of the facility, couldnÕt confirm any complaints from residents or their families about the leaf-burning fumes, although he said a nurse there was alarmed enough to contact fire officials about last week's smoke.   "You can smell the leaves here if they're burning," Butterfield said, adding that incidents are infrequent. "Every once in awhile the smoke can get quite thick and it stays low to the ground. Anyone that has respiratory problems could be affected."  

Fire officials said they received another complaint last week from a Village Green resident, who suffered difficulty breathing because of smoky conditions.

Complaints about leaf burning are common in the area and officials say incidents of backyard-leaf burning often increase in the fall as trees shed foliage.  

Leaf burning is not expressly prohibited under Pewee Valley ordinances Ñ and attempts by city officials to more adequately address the issue failed a few years ago, largely because of strong opposition from long-time rural residents.

People have been burning leaves in Pewee Valley for years, Hamilton said, and many are resistant to any type of burn bans.

But Hamilton and some others say a ban on burning is needed Ñ especially since the area is becoming increasingly suburban.


Leaves are highly flammable and create fast flames that can be especially threatening in dry conditions. Leaf burning leads to air pollution and health problems. It produces particulate matter and hydrocarbons, which contains a number of toxic, irritant and cancer-causing compounds.

 Leaf smoke also contains carbon monoxide Ñ a deadly gas more commonly emitted from the tailpipes of cars.  

If inhaled, these microscopic particles can invade deep regions of the lungs and remain trapped there for months, or even years. Breathing the fumes increases the chance of respiratory infections and can trigger asthma attacks.

That's why Pewee Valley councilwoman Amy Johnson, who is also a Louisville physician, encouraged residents to consider alternative ways to eliminate leaves.  

"Bagging them up is better than burning them," said Johnson, who still prefers the more environmentally-friendly method of disposal - composting.

Composting speeds decomposition of leaves and organic materials. It conditions the soil and the earthy matter can be reused to enrich gardens.

Johnson offered to help any with composting.

She can be reached at Pewee Valley City Hall, 241-8343.

E-mail us about this story at bschanding@lcni.com