Whenever I see someone smoking a cigarette in public, I'm a bit taken aback. Whether the smoker is walking down the street, sitting on a park bench, or standing in a doorway, puffing on a cigarette looks anachronistic to me. Given the findings on harmful effects of secondhand smoke, no wonder smoking is prohibited indoors in public places. "Despite the progress we've made," a nonprofit's ad campaign warns, "tobacco is still a big problem in Minnesota."

Another kind of toxic smoke recently came to the attention of the MCV editorial team. A colleague urged us to look into the use of burn barrels. He said we'd be surprised to learn the extent and persistence of this pollution problem. Indeed, we were.

I thought burn barrels were as outmoded as ashtrays. Living beyond city limits in the 1960s, my family and our neighbors had backyard barrels for burning household trash. Even before no-burn laws passed, Dad decommissioned our barrel and hired a trash hauler. Once in a while, after the ban on burning garbage in the 1980s, I'd notice smoke rising from a barrel left standing in someone's yard. Eventually, I stopped seeing burn barrels. But as our colleague informed us and our lead story in this issue tells, Minnesota still has a burning problem.

To investigate the practice of burning garbage, Keith Goetzman traveled the rural roads of Morrison County with DNR conservation officer Paul Kuske. His story "A Burning Problem" shows what they saw, heard, and smelled—what they found hidden in plain sight.

Like secondhand cigarette smoke, a fire here and there, now and again, would not seem to cause much harm to a bystander. But as DNR conservation officers and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency inspectors can attest, the impact of burning trash accumulates one fire at a time. Every piece of plastic, paper, rubber, and metal adds toxic fuel to a fire. Going up in smoke, toxins spread in the air, onto land, and into lakes and streams. Not only people but also fish, wildlife, and plants suffer the cumulative effects of this pollution. According to a PCA inspector quoted in our story, "the open burning of household waste … contributes to 50 percent of the known dioxins [carcinogens] generated in the state."

Why are so many people burning garbage? Our story considers possible motives—convenience, cost, and the force of habits passed on almost like family traditions. Most important, a sidebar called "Kick the Burn Habit" lists some simple alternatives to illegal burning.

This is the fire season. Every year garbage burning ignites wildfires. Spring cleaning often prompts people to discard possessions and send them up in flames. We open the cabin, clear rubbish from the yard, clean out the garage, sort through the toolshed, and ready the fishing boat. Whether we have a fire ring on a lakeshore or city lot, we might be tempted to build a fire and toss in a little trash. A clearing in the woods might seem a safe place for lighting a bonfire to dispose of an old mattress or sofa.

If we stop to think about it, we know nothing ever really goes away. Things go up in smoke, only to rain down like unintended consequences.

Working on this story, our editorial team has learned a lot. By reading it, we hope you will too. Let's spread the word that burning trash is against the law because it's bad for every living thing. Unlike many problems, illegal burning is one problem each of us can prevent in our own backyard and campfire … and maybe our neighbor's too.