Photo Credit: A collaborative group discusses a prescribed fire and its effects as smoke still lingers. Photo by Ed Keith, Deschutes County

In Oregon, prescribed fire smoke is regulated by the Oregon Smoke Management Plan, which is overseen by the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The plan is revisited every five years, in terms of both effectiveness and changing conditions. (This webpage provides links to the plan itself and related resources.) Since the plan was last revised in 2013, Oregon has experienced several severe wildfire seasons. Consequently, there has been a desire on the part of several communities, agencies and collaborative groups to change our smoke management rules in order to provide more flexibility and to allow for more prescribed fire, especially near communities where managing smoke has proven to be exceptionally tricky.

Currently, the Oregon Smoke Management Plan designates areas with relatively dense populations, such as cities, as Smoke Sensitive Receptor Areas (SSRAs). The overall objective of the plan is to maximize good fire while minimizing the smoke that enters SSRAs. Any ground-level smoke entering an SSRA is considered an “intrusion.” You can quickly realize that preventing intrusions, and therefore meeting the intent of the plan, is immensely challenging if you’re also juggling the objective of reducing wildfire risk in densely populated areas.

When we entered into the review process, several partners from around the state suggested changes to better align the plan with the standards in the Clean Air Act, which sets limits on particulate matter in the air based on scientific research, while also suggesting some flexibility in the rules for communities with a documented need to mitigate their fuels.

As the process moved ahead, it was clear that some of the suggestions regarding more smoke in the air made people who were looking at the issue from a public-health angle nervous, and for good reason. It is well documented that the fine smoke particles travel deep into people’s lungs and can cause serious health concerns. However, it was also clear to those stakeholders that wildfires are becoming increasingly deadly and destructive, and smoke from wildfires is typically more intense and longer in duration than prescribed fire smoke.

A bar graph showing that the average daily emotions for the fires in this study were much lower when the fire was either prescribed or managed for resource objectives than typical wildfires. Megafires were about 20 times greater than typical wildfires.

This graph, albeit the data are from Yosemite National Park in California, illustrates how different prescribed smoke and wildfire smoke can be. Click on it to learn more about wildfire smoke research. Credit: Jonathan Long, adapted from Long et al. (2017)

With these concerns in mind, ODF and DEQ put forward a revised rule meant to be slightly more lenient toward smoke than the current rule. ODF and DEQ held a series of public meetings across the state, including one in Bend (where I live and work) in which commenters expressed unanimous support for more prescribed fire. The window for public comment is now closed, and I’m pleased to say that most, but not all, of the comments favored the direction the proposed rules have taken. Numerous comments included statements acknowledging the need to use prescribed fire to proactively reduce fuels in the face of longer and hotter wildfire seasons.

An image of smoke with two of the public comment made in response to Oregon's draft smoke management plan: “I support the rewriting of the rules governing prescribed fires to provide increased forest management and strategically reducing the over-forested lands in Oregon.” “Controlled burns during optimal weather is infinitely superior to the unknown wildfire risks both in terms of health and safety, and of the costs incurred.”

Two example public comments. Click on the image above to read additional comments. Photo credit: Lisa McNee, Bureau of Land Management (Oregon and Washington) shared via Flickr Creative Commons

The new rule, that hopefully will include the proposed flexibility, is set to be finalized in a series of meetings later this fall and winter. Hopefully, prescribed fire practitioners can utilize it to implement more controlled burns this coming spring.

Editor’s note: This post concludes our three-week series on smoke. Did you enjoy it? Let us know what you think about thematic series in the comment section below.

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