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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.

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 40443

Reported Deaths: 635
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Multnomah8743155
Marion5590106
Washington546973
Umatilla329543
Clackamas299065
Lane221226
Malheur186634
Jackson15556
Deschutes107413
Yamhill95615
Linn76414
Polk63915
Jefferson5979
Morrow5426
Lincoln50913
Union4582
Benton4186
Klamath4013
Wasco33515
Douglas3314
Hood River2721
Josephine2583
Columbia2491
Clatsop2340
Coos2290
Baker1132
Crook872
Tillamook700
Curry561
Wallowa402
Lake340
Sherman180
Harney170
Gilliam110
Grant100
Wheeler10
Unassigned00

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 886939

Reported Deaths: 17167
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Los Angeles2904866944
Riverside650561275
San Bernardino609451065
Orange576351423
San Diego53263863
Kern33551413
Fresno30220430
Sacramento24811474
Santa Clara23591382
Alameda22932435
San Joaquin21436484
Contra Costa18273238
Stanislaus17403394
Tulare17317279
Ventura13930160
Imperial12610336
San Francisco11969137
Monterey1115884
San Mateo10918157
Santa Barbara9671119
Merced9386153
Sonoma9016134
Kings817383
Solano720574
Marin7036127
Madera492873
San Luis Obispo408032
Placer402355
Yolo309958
Butte302651
Santa Cruz272524
Napa190814
Sutter182112
Shasta178629
San Benito141114
El Dorado13024
Yuba128010
Mendocino111121
Tehama7938
Lassen7611
Lake67815
Glenn6473
Nevada5988
Humboldt5609
Colusa5486
Calaveras33917
Amador31316
Tuolumne2574
Inyo21815
Siskiyou1860
Del Norte1751
Mono1752
Mariposa782
Plumas610
Modoc270
Trinity250
Sierra60
Alpine30
Unassigned00
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