Cool, rainy weather across much of the state has allowed the first controlled burns to be lit in parts of Oregon. New rules governing smoke may allow more of these burns than in the past.
Oregon Department of Forestry officials believe increasing the amount of burning will help landowners reduce the public safety risk from the buildup of fuels in forests, and improve forest health.
Known as prescribed fires, these regulated burns are lit when weather conditions will minimize smoke getting into smoke-sensitive receptor areas (SSRAs) and Class I wilderness areas, such as Crater Lake National Park. According to ODF records, out of 2,964 units burned in 2018 only 18 – about half of one percent – resulted in smoke entering an SSRA.
Although forest landowners with permits may be burning in certain areas, the public should know that fire season may still be in effect where they live or camp, so check first before lighting backyard debris piles or making a campfire.
“The prescribed burns the public may see in coming weeks are done only when weather conditions are favorable for burning,” Oregon Department of Forestry Smoke Management Program Manager Nick Yonker said. “We look to burn on days where air movement will disperse the smoke so public health is protected.”
New rules implemented this spring still require that burners not exceed federal air quality standards for particulate matter from smoke. But they no longer classify small amounts of smoke entering an SSRA as an intrusion.
“The old standard used to be zero visible smoke in an SSRA,” Yonker said. “This made it difficult to burn brush near populated areas, the very places where burning built-up woody fuels would improve public safety the most.”
Yonker said he expects that burners will now be more confident about starting burns when conditions are reasonable rather than only when they are perfect. “If the weather cooperates, a conservative estimate is that we might get from 10 percent to 20 percent more burning done than last fall.”
According to Yonker, ODF is also educating forest landowners about the benefits of covering debris piles.
“Our research has shown that woody piles covered with polyethylene sheets produce far less smoke than uncovered wet piles, which tend to smolder. So burners can burn more piles without adding to the overall volume of smoke,” he said. “An added benefit is that landowners can burn covered piles later into the rainy season, since they stay dry enough to burn compared to uncovered piles soaked by rain.”
Last year, controlled fires were set on 185,702 acres out of Oregon’s more than 30 million forested acres. That was about 16,000 acres above the 10-year annual average of 169,779 acres burned. Estimates are that those fires burned almost 1.3 million tons of woody debris.
The weeks just before heavy fall rains set in are considered ideal for burning, since those rains and colder temperatures reduce the chance a burn will reignite and start a wildfire.
To learn if a controlled burn is planned in your area, visit the Daily Burn Plans page on ODF’s website.