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Smoke now or smoke later: Oregon's controlled burn rule changes go into effect

State forestry and air quality officials adopted rule changes in January that will allow for more prescribed burns in an effort to head off a devastatingly smoky summer.

Posted: Mar. 7, 2019 11:02 AM
Updated: Mar. 8, 2019 9:24 AM

SALEM, Ore. — After a string of successively devastating fire seasons, Oregonians have been faced with a dilemma — smoke now, or smoke later? Either way, the smoke is likely to make an entrance.

In January, the state Board of Forestry and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) approved rule changes that effectively choose the former, preferring to step up controlled burns during the fall and spring months in an effort to head off the kind of massive wildfires and heavy smoke seen in the summer of 2018.

According to the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF), the rule changes put the onus on individual communities by calling on them to "voluntarily develop response plans" to protect people particularly vulnerable to smoke — including children, seniors, and those with heart or lung conditions. These response plans include the flexibility of using controlled burns more often, to an extent.

“Response plans will detail how communities will be notified when unhealthy levels of smoke are expected. They will also outline how community officials in turn will notify residents so they can take specific actions to protect themselves and their children, such as bringing physical education classes indoors,” said ODF Smoke Management Program Manager Nick Yonker.

ODF said that the revised rules still meet federal air quality standards, but have changed the standard of measurement. Whereas healthy or unhealthy smoke levels used to be tied to how visible the smoke was, now they will be tied to the measured level of smoke particulates considered unhealthy for vulnerable groups.

“Prescribed fire is one of the many tools used to reduce the wildfire risks posed by forest fuel. When used properly, the smoke management program has a history of completing burn objectives while preventing smoke from entering communities, and DEQ expects this trend to continue. These new rules identify key elements that community plans should include, like smoke risks and what actions people can take to protect their health," said Michael Orman, manager of Air Quality Planning at DEQ.

The rule changes follow an 18-month review of the state's Smoke Management Program by a 20-person appointed committee made up of forest landowners, public health representatives, the American Lung Association, forest collaboratives and environmentalist groups, county and city elected officials, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and a tribal representative.

“The rule revisions provide greater flexibility for those wanting to use controlled burns to improve the health of fire-adapted forestland,” said Yonker. “And they should increase the opportunities for landowners to reduce wildfire risk near communities by thinning overcrowded forests and burning the woody debris.”

According to ODF records, controlled fires were set on 181,282 acres in Oregon throughout 2018 — above the 10-year annual average of 165,999 acres. Those fires burned an estimated 1.3 million tons of brush and woody debris, potential fuel for wildfires.

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