Smoke meeting draws low turnout

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By GENEVIEVE BOOKWALTER

Better communication, improved weather forecasting and the new Healthy Forest Initiative should reduce controlled-burn smoke in the foothills next fall.

That was the good news from a Sonora meeting held yesterday by Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa.

But few heard it: Only 60 came to the Mother Lode Fairgrounds' cavernous Sierra Building for the panel discussion. It was less than a quarter of the crowd expected by the congressman's staff.

The "listening session," which also included Assemblyman Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, was prompted by the thick pall of smoke put in the air in August and September by controlled burns and lightning fires in Yosemite National Park and the Stanislaus National Forest.

During the burns, phones rang incessantly in county offices and letters hit The Union Democrat's editorial page as residents complained of poor air.

While yesterday's panel received a few pointed questions and complaints, many in yesterday's audience were officials representing the Forest Service, Park Service, Tuolumne County or the City of Sonora.

Most chairs sat empty as a panel of representatives from these agencies, Tuolumne County Air Pollution Control, state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Tuolumne County Health Department debated the benefits of controlled burning with the risks of smoke inhalation.

Despite the turnout, most said they felt the session was worthwhile.

"It's a start," said Tuolumne County Supervisor Mark Thornton. "The public needed to know state and federal agencies are aware of the smoke impacts."

All panel members said they are working to reduce the smoke problem next year, even though controlled burning will still go on to reduce debris buildup on the forest floor.

But more communication between agencies and the public, and improved weather forecasting technology, should help people understand why burns are necessary and that fire officials know when to put them out.

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