Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Burning Leaves

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Photo by Alex Grichenko, CC0 Public Domain, via PublicDomainPictures.net

The first leaves have begun to fall on my property. It takes me back in thought to all those afternoons after school when my job was to rake leaves into the fire ring at the bottom of our yard and burn them. The aroma of burning leaves was one of my favorite things of fall. It was not only the aroma. Like many kids, I liked burning things (as long as it wasn’t in the house). One of the things I loved to do was burn our paper trash in the wire burner we would line with old newspaper, light and watch burn. Colored paper had especially colorful flame.

We all did it. It was the only way most of us knew to get rid of those leaves. This was before leaf pickups and most of us didn’t know about composting. During October and November, the haze of burning leaves added to other forms of pollution in the Valley. By Thanksgiving, it was all over, usually just in time for the early snows to arrive.

Somewhere in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s communities across the country outlawed burning leaves. From a work point of view, for many of us it added work as we had to rake all those leaves into those tall brown bags that we would haul to the curb. Some communities would send giant leaf vacuums around and all you had to do is rake your leaves to the curb. That always seemed messier.

The truth was that leaf burning had a number of downsides. The obvious one was fires getting out of control. If the nearby grass or brush or debris was dry and there was any wind, fire could spread. Most houses were pretty close, and our garage was even closer. We always had to watch and make sure we kept the leaves inside the fire ring. You NEVER left burning leaves unattended (which also meant you smelled like leaf smoke, and probably breathed in a certain amount of it). Burning leaves emit hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide, and carbon monoxide into the air and can create ozone problems. Anyone whose respiratory system was compromised could have more serious breathing problems. And smoke in the lungs is not good for anyone.

There are limited conditions under which rural residents of Ohio can still burn. No burning of leaves can be done in cities (like Youngstown), villages, or other restricted areas. The Ohio EPA website spells out under what conditions open burning is permitted, and under what conditions it is permitted. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Forestry Division website, Ohio Revised Code 1503.18:

Ohio DNR Forestry prohibits outdoor open burning and prescribed fires in the months of March, April, May, October, and November between 6am and 6pm. This ban includes burning of yard waste, trash, and debris, even in a proper burn barrel.

Even outside the time and date restrictions, any person conducting a burn must obtain landowner permission, remain with the fire while it is burning, and take all reasonable precautions to prevent the fire from escaping.

In addition, the following restrictions also apply:

  • Fires must be more than 1000 feet from neighbor’s inhabited building
  • No burning when air pollution alert, warning, or emergency is in effect
  • Fire/smoke cannot obscure visibility on roadway, railways, or airfields
  • No waste generated off the premises may be burned
  • No burning within village or city limits or restricted areas

Actually, composting, either via leaf bags or on your own compost pile where permitted is the most environmental thing you can do. Properly done, the leaves break down and make great material to enrich your soil. A second alternative that I use is to mow the leaves into the lawn with a mulching mower. Again, the material decays over the winter and puts the nutrients those leaves drew out of the soil back in. The one downside of mowing is the carbon emissions from your mower unless it is a hand mower or electric.

For those living in Youngstown free leaf bags (while supplies last) are available beginning October 1, 8 am to 4 pm Monday through Friday at Green Youngstown, 20 W. Federal Street, Suite 602. Curbside pickup on regular trash pickup days will occur from November 4 through November 29. All of this applies to City of Youngstown residents only! Others should check their own municipality’s leaf pickup provisions.

The end of leaf burning in our cities is good for the air, good for the environment, and good for people. But I miss the savory aroma of those burning leaves!

2 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Burning Leaves

  1. Reading the first paragraph, the phrase “The aroma of burning leaves…” so immediately triggered that long dormant intoxicating fragrance in my brain I was almost startled. It is appropriate and important, as you’ve done, to put that memory and nostalgia in the proper perspective of what was being done to the air and to ourselves.
    Ironically, I was thinking recently of another remnant of old winters that conjures memories, but for which we’re all better off without: coal burning furnaces.
    Our house in Hazelwood Ave. was built in 1913. When we moved in during 1955 it still had a coal burning furnace in the basement. Next to it was a walled area for holding the coal, the coal bin. The bin was fed by a coal delivery truck that pulled into the driveway and slid a coal chute from their truck to the opening in the side of the foundation (otherwise covered by a heavy metal top-hinged door) that led to the bin. I remember a few deliveries being made. I remember seeing the basement coal bin filled with shiny black stones. I remember hearing my father shoveling coal into the furnace to keep the house warm. I also remember a year or so later seeing the removal of that furnace for a gas one and the conversion of the coal bin to Dad’s office.
    Think about the air quality in Youngstown in those days when the mills where working 24/7, many homes were using coal heating and we so enjoyed the autumn ritual of burning leaves. Yikes!

    • Great point. The aroma was delightful, the haze meant jobs and wamth, but at a cost to our health, and to the atmosphere. I guess we only learn, hopefully, from our mistakes.

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