A volunteer effort to clean up the future site of a religious retreat overlooking the Yakima River Canyon suffered a setback Thursday — the first day of a planned three-day project — when the state nixed plans to burn trash at the site.

The project will continue as planned through Saturday, albeit without the convenience of fire.

The Department of Ecology moved quickly after learning Wednesday about the burning, which would have affected about 450 participants expected to run through the canyon during Saturday’s Yakima River Canyon Marathon.

“I hated to think about all those runners down there in the canyon with all that smoke there, especially if (the trash fire) was going to be smoldering for three days,” said department spokeswoman Joye Redfield-Wilder, who had spotted plans for the burn in a newspaper story.

The cleanup is being coordinated by the Knights of Columbus Ahtanum Mission No. 6097 on behalf of the Beit Mery Hermitage, a nonprofit Catholic prayer ministry which has purchased 70 acres some three miles up Burbank Creek Road from State Route 821 with plans to build hermitage structures within the next two years.

Before that construction can begin, though, volunteers have had to remove a mess of “incredibly horrible” proportions left behind by a previous resident of the property, according to Ahtanum Mission officer Dennis Neveu. While much has already been hauled off, a large amount of pallets and other wood garbage remain. Because of the expense of hauling refuse to a landfill, Neveu said, the group planned to build and maintain a small 8-by-8-by-4-foot slash fire and monitor it closely for what they anticipated to be three days of burning, Thursday through Saturday.

Cleanup coordinators had notified the Kittitas County Fire Marshal’s office about their intentions and were told that particular area has no designated fire protection, Neveu said. The Ecology Department, though, oversees that county’s air-quality issues and, in light of the marathon and current conditions, banned the burning.

“You need to get a land-clearing permit and you need to make sure it’s a day when the wind’s not blowing,” Redfield-Wilder said. “The issue here is not just smoke and bad stuff in the air we don’t want to breathe. But you also don’t want to create a wildfire on a day when the wind and weather is not conducive to burning.”

Neveu, who had already hauled more than 100 tires from the site, was frustrated by the agency’s decision and canceled the cleanup.

“It’s beyond our financial capability to haul that stuff to the transfer station clear beyond Cle Elum,” Neveu said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. We’re cleaning up something that is incredibly horrible, and there’s no way we can afford to transport all this stuff.”

However, Yakima diocesan Catholic Church hermit Janet Strong said the cleanup would have to go on, even without burning.

“There’s a lot of garbage up there that still has to be picked up,” she said. “The reality is that Kittitas County says we have to clean it up, so any help we can get to clean it up is help that we need.”

Strong said she had been assured by law enforcement officials that although the Canyon Road (SR 821) will be closed Saturday to all but local traffic for the safety of marathon runners, cleanup volunteers would be allowed through.

The cleanup is at 4840 Burbank Creek Road, 3.1 miles up from SR 821, and Strong said ordinary passenger vehicles should have no trouble getting there. “I have a van and it’s low to the ground, and I get through — except in winter,” she said. “You just have to know that the road, as you go forward, gets worse and worse and worse.”

No worse than what they’ll find at the cleanup site, which, Neveu said, “is a giant pigsty.”

This article has been updated to clarify a quote by Joye Redfield-Wilder regarding when burning is allowed.