Oregon is proposing to change how it regulates smoke. The idea is to make it easier to use intentionally set or prescribed fire on public and private land.
Wildfire smoke has increasingly become a point of contention in communities across the Pacific Northwest. For example, Southern Oregon has experienced the worst air quality in the state this summer. There have been around 25 days when the air quality has reached unhealthy levels.
It’s broadly accepted that lighting prescribed fires in times when fire danger is low can burn up excess fuels in the forest and help reduce the severity of wildfire — and it should also help with smoke in the summer.
The Oregon Department of Forestry and the Department of Environmental Quality are working on rule changes that will increase the number of burn days available for prescribed fire. Currently ODF says about 165,000 acres are burned each year in the state, and they’d like to get that number up.
The main push is to relax air quality standards around communities.
The smoke from prescribed burns is regulated and currently not allowed to blow toward most of the population centers in the state.
The changes would allow limited amounts of smoke to enter communities.
The 24-hour average smoke level would have to stay below a certain level. There would be a 1-hour smoke limit as well, but communities with approved public information plans could apply for an exemption. The changes are designed to increase the number of burn days and should eventually lead to more annual prescribed fire.
“If we don’t have the ability to use prescribed fire in and around communities in specific areas, then the wildland fire they’re going to learn to live with would be catastrophic,” said Joe Stutler, a natural resource advisor for Deschutes County who supports the effort. “The issue is, ‘How do you like your smoke?’”
There has been some opposition to relaxing air quality standards. The American Lung Association in Oregon says it can’t support the proposal.
Lisa Arkin of the environmental health group Beyond Toxics isn’t thrilled either. She thinks the rules are too broad.
“The agencies have failed to separate out prescribed burning as part of an ecological and fire prevention tool in fire landscapes as opposed to increasing the amount of smoke that’s allowed from slash burning on corporate timber plantations,” she said.
Slash is the bark and branches left behind and piled after a logging or thinning operation. According to the Oregon Department of Forestry, slash is often removed (through burning or other means) to reduce the risk of wildfire and/or prepare the site for replanting.
Both kinds of burning are considered prescribed burns under the state’s Smoke Management Plan.
Even if the rule changes are approved, it may be a while before any substantive changes happen in wildfire season. Public comment on the proposed changes will be accepted through Sept. 14. Separate decisions by ODF and DEQ are expected over the next several months.