A burner having lower emissions and lower unburned fuel losses by implementing a transition zone in a low NO.sub.x burner. The improved burner includes a pulverized fuel transport nozzle surrounded by the transition zone which shields the central oxygen-lean fuel devolatilization zone from the swirling secondary combustion air. The transition zone acts as a buffer between the primary and the secondary air streams to improve the control of near-burner mixing and flame stability by providing limited recirculation regions between primary and secondary air streams. These limited recirculation regions transport evolved NO.sub.x back towards the oxygen-lean fuel pyrolysis zone for reduction to molecular nitrogen. Alternate embodiments include natural gas and fuel oil firing.