Science & Environment

More smoke from prescribed forest burning could be on its way to Oregon

By Monica Samayoa (OPB)
Feb. 22, 2021 2 p.m.

The Environmental Protection Agency is seeking public comment for rule changes that would allow more smoke in Oregon from prescribed burning on forest lands.

The State Implementation Plan’s Smoke Management Plan revisions allow for more prescribed burning while still protecting public health within any federal, state, and private forest lands in Oregon.


Prescribed burning is a tool that has been used for hundreds of years, first by Native Americans and now by public land managers, as well. It’s a way to restore and improve forestlands by burning fuels like brush, smaller trees, and dead vegetation. Scientists say prescribed burning also helps reduce wildfire risks to nearby communities that may fall victim to massive wildfires.

But Smoke Management Plan rules have made the practice difficult to carry out. Communities that have already been heavily hit by low air quality were off limits to additional air problems from prescribed burning. As a result, vast stretches of forest could not be treated with fire, resulting in increased wildfire dangers.


Manager Michael Orman said the goal for the revisions is to keep air quality levels below the federal government’s air quality standards — while also finding a balance with increasing prescribed burns and protecting public health. One of those changes is increasing communication with communities.

“The plan that we put in place now incorporates community response planning as part of that activity,” he said. “Communities are encouraged to develop plans to notify their community members of potential smoke impacts, when burning is happening and the purpose of those burns.”

The Oregon Department of Forestry implements the program and uses weather forecasts to make sure smoke conditions for prescribed burns are good to go. The goal is to perform these burns in conditions that allow smoke to move up and out of the way from ground levels to prevent intrusions, or smoke, from lingering in nearby communities.

“Now intrusions are a different threshold, and some smoke is allowed,” Orman said.

The rulemaking was a collaborative effort between the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the Oregon Department of Forestry and the Oregon Health Authority and were submitted to the EPA in June 2019.

The public comment period ends March 22.