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 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 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, an natural resource advisor for Deschutes County who supports the effort. “The issue is, ‘How do you like your smoke?’”
More than a hundred people showed up to a public hearing on the new rules in Medford Wednesday night. Many at the hearing were looking for direct relieve from the summer smoke. They were frustrated by weeks of unhealthy levels of wildfire smoke in the Rogue Valley.
“The thing is people don’t want to put up with this. They’re tired of it. It’s got to end. Something has to be done,” said Jim Herndon, a local candidate for Medford City Council.
Representatives from environmental and climate groups supported the changes. And many are actually pushing the state to relax the air quality standards even more by getting rid of the 1-hour smoke limits.
Hiram Towle, manager of the Mount Ashland Ski Area, said summer events at the ski area have been canceled by this year’s smoke.
“Make hay when the sun shines, make smoke when it doesn’t,” he said. “Which (means) making the money in the tourist economy during the time when people come, which is when the sun is shining and its driest and hottest.”
Medford resident and asthma-sufferer Sarah Wallan also voiced support for the changes.
“It’s very difficult for our systems to deal with being inundated with forest fire smoke constantly, day after day, hour after hour,” she said. “Whereas with a prescribed burn or small wildfire that’s put out quickly, it causes a very temporary spike in the air quality index. And we can use inhalers and nebulizers and maintenance drugs for that shorter time.”
Beyond the hearing though, 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.
Arkin also criticizes a proposed change that increases the amount of polyethylene (plastic) sheeting that can be used to cover slash piles. She says it’s problematic that there is no upper limit how much plastic can be burned along with the piled slash.
“Currently it’s against the law to burn plastic in trash piles, and you shouldn’t burn plastic in your fireplace. So why the heck should we be allowing more plastic to be burned in a forestry setting?” she said.
The answer from the Oregon Department of Forestry is that the benefits for air quality outweigh the costs. Dry wood burns much hotter and cleaner than wet, and plastic is used to keep piles dry. It extends the burn season and reduces the overall amount of smoke entering the air. The agency also sites a 2014 study from the U.S. Forest Service and University of California, Riverside that showed few emissions differences between burning piles with and without the plastic sheeting.
“If they can cover that with two pounds (of plastic) on a 10-ton pile, that two pounds creates such a benefit and is so little in the way of pollutant anyway, it’s the best win-win I can think of,” said Nick Yonker, ODF Smoke Management Program Manager.
Even if the rule changes are approved, it may be a while before the any substantive changes happen in wildfire season. Prescribed burns are kind of like car maintenance: you can’t just do it once, it’s an ongoing thing, and the results may not be noticeable immediately.
Undoubtedly people will still be frustrated with wildfire smoke in the years to come.
Yonker says he’s discussed the rule changes with both federal and private landowners.
“The private landowners probably aren’t going to be increasing burning much. The federal landowners are probably aren’t going to increase burning much more than ten percent per year,” he said.
“It’s going to take quite a while to get there.”
Public comment on the proposed changes will be accepted through Sept. 14, 2018. Separate decisions by ODF and DEQ are expected over the next several months.