Residents are rightly proud of the clean fresh air that comes with Norfolk Island’s location in the middle of an ocean, swept by fresh breezes from all points of the compass.
Except that the air is very often not clean or fresh. The practice of setting fire to bonfires of shrubby weeds after clearing is widespread. Given the small size of the Island, a fire burning in one corner can pollute the living space of residents as far away as the opposite side of the Island. To the average resident, bonfire smoke may be not much more than a nuisance, but to asthmatics, migraineurs or people with lung incapacity, even a whiff of smoke can be a source of great suffering, perhaps for days afterwards.
Of course, there are valid reasons why many Island people have been in the habit of setting fires. The shrubby weeds are a nuisance even after they are dead. If piled up in a paddock or yard, the branches, particularly of the widespread Hawaiian Holly, don’t rot down quickly and commonly don’t rot before another crop of weeds has germinated in their shade. They look untidy and can be a trip hazard. So yes, it is easy to want to be rid of them and setting fire is the simplest way.
Most Islanders will refrain from burning green waste thus producing drifting smoke, but it is not always possible. Most land owners and machine operators endeavour to cause as little inconvenience to other residents as possible. Burning in small heaps as it is cleared has always been the acceptable practice. However, once a fire is lit with the wind in the right direction, there is no guarantee that it will hold that direction until the fire is extinguished.
Nowadays, the Waste Management Centre operated by the Council will accept a wide range of waste materials including green waste and operates a HotRot composter to turn organic material into useable mulch.
There is another reason apart from civic conscience for not burning any garden waste. The soil needs more carbon, and the carbon content as well as the organic nitrogen content of any garden waste not turned into compost or mulch is lost. Also, a proportion of the mineral nutrients contained in vegetation, when burnt, is carried away in smoke that drifts out over the sea. Norfolk Island’s soils are highly leached and minerals lost to sea are lost forever. The amounts from each fire may be small, but small amounts add up.