Change Oregon’s rules for smoke

  • Saturday, August 9, 2014 6:14pm
  • Opinion

Almost every summer the smoky air from wildfires lingers over Central Oregon. No matter how many fire crews are deployed or how quickly they respond, the fires and smoke come.

The cruelest twist is that the very rules the state has in place to keep smoke away from Bend and Redmond could make it worse.

The state’s smoke management plan declares that there should be no “smoke intrusions” in Bend and Redmond because of their denser populations. So when the Forest Service is doing a prescribed burn to reduce the chance of a devastating wildfire, it designs the burn as best it can. The aim is for the main smoke plume to be vented up, out and away.

That was the plan this past spring. The Forest Service spent years coming up with a thinning/burning operation west of Bend in the area around Phil’s Trail.

There’s no doubt it’s needed. The 22,000-acre area has been in awful condition, right in Bend’s backyard. A Forest Service analysis says it’s a “hazardous fuels” condition that put the project area near the city of Bend “at risk of stand-replacing wildfire, such as occurred in 1990 with the Awbrey Hall stand-replacing fire.”

The Forest Service did a prescribed burn on 275 acres this spring on part of the project. It all went well during the day. Overnight, the fire smoldered. Smoke was picked up by air quality monitors in Bend.

Nick Yonker, the smoke management meteorology manager with the Oregon Department of Forestry, and others arrived to investigate. The ODF manages smoke from prescribed burns for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Yonker told us that people sometimes “lie” about the fuels on the ground as a way of getting permission to burn larger areas. He said he wasn’t talking about the Deschutes National Forest. But later he said that the Forest Service reported less fuel on the ground than he and others calculated was there — about half. “They were not reporting the duff.”

He declared the next burns would have to be much smaller, about 40 to 50 acres. He said it might be possible to go bigger, to 100 acres.

At that rate, with the limited number of days suitable for prescribed burns in the spring and fall, the needed work is not at all likely to get done. The zero-tolerance smoke policy means the areas that need the treatment the most won’t get it.

Last week, the Deschutes County Commission approved a letter to the state asking it to modify its smoke rules.

The right fire at the right place and time is good for the forest. There will be smoke. And that can be an irritant or much more serious to some people. But that smoke is much less serious than a wildfire right next to Bend.

The (Bend) Bulletin,

Aug. 3

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