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Navigating the Impacts of EPA's New Air Quality Standards on Beneficial Fire

After months of waiting, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its final rule on National Ambient Air Quality Standards last week. The rule focuses on fine particulate matter, referred to as PM 2.5 or soot. The new rule tightened the average annual standard from 12 to 9 micrograms per cubic meter, which will fall on states on to implement.

Throughout the regulatory process, conservation groups that are focused on beneficial fire (the deliberate use of fire to achieve specific land management objectives) have raised alarm bells that reducing this annual standard would significantly impact land managers’ ability to conduct intentional burning. Under the new rule, beneficial fire falls under the Exceptional Events Rule – a complicated and burdensome regulatory process that ultimately excludes emissions from beneficial fire from the overall standard. However, conservation groups worry that the hurdles of operating under Exceptional Events will ultimately lead to less beneficial fire, which is one of the few tools we have in place right now to combat catastrophic wildfires.

The ramifications of this regulatory change are far-reaching. More regions across the country are anticipated to fall short of compliance, subjecting them to additional regulatory burdens for beneficial fire usage. Reports indicate that areas in the Southeast and Western states are likely to be particularly affected by non-attainment under the new standards.

Now that the rule is out, there are several ways to engage to ensure the ultimate goal of clean air is achieved. These include:

1. Engaging with state and federal regulators. EPA-led tools to help states comply under Exceptional Events are still being finalized. EPA, USFS, DOI, and other agencies are looking for solutions to ensure beneficial fire can still occur and are looking for long-term engagement on the issue.

2. Look at Congressional legislation. This Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment, Manufacturing, and Critical Materials will hold a hearing on "Safeguarding American Prosperity and People’s Livelihoods: Legislation to Modernize Air Quality Standards" The Subcommittee will look at a discussion draft that considers, among other policies, provisions to make beneficial fire easier to comply with under the Exceptional Events Rule. Additionally, we expect sponsors of the National Prescribed Fire Act to reintroduce legislation with language that addresses the Clean Air Act.

3. Educate allies. This is a nuanced issue that needs ample education. The congressional committees of jurisdiction rarely cover policies dealing with beneficial fire, and lawmakers and organizations will inherently fall along party lines in their response. Breaking down the siloes and explaining the impact of this rule on beneficial fire in the short-term will pay dividends in the long-run for finding solutions that allow this practice to continue and grow.


In navigating the complex interplay between air quality regulations and wildfire management, organizations who care about this issue have an opportunity to share the importance of beneficial fire. There is a path forward that safeguards both public health and the resilience of our natural landscapes against the threat of wildfires, but it takes education and advocacy.


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