Photo: Oregon Department of Forestry
Oregonians in forested areas may see smoke from a number of controlled burns – known as prescribed burns – this fall and winter. Forest landowners use the burns to eliminate woody fuels that build up on their land from forest thinning and after timber harvests.
This year’s fall burning season coincides with a rise in COVID-19 cases in Oregon. Smoke may worsen symptoms for people coping with compromised health or lung function due to COVID-19. The Oregon Department of Forestry’s (ODF) current smoke rules minimize smoke from entering certain populated cities and areas known as Smoke Sensitive Receptor Areas (SSRAs).
ODF Smoke Management Program Manager Nick Yonker says, “To protect people with impaired lung function due to COVID-19, we’ve coordinated with the Oregon Health Authority to ensure that during the pandemic we will govern prescribed burns in counties experiencing higher levels of COVID-19 under older, tighter smoke regulations. Those define any amount of smoke from a prescribed burn into an SSRA as an intrusion. We will forecast to avoid any smoke from prescribed burning from entering an SSRA in those counties.”
Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and partner agencies monitor smoke levels and air quality across the state. DEQ’s Air Quality Index provides current air quality conditions categorized as good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, very unhealthy and hazardous.
The Oregon Department of Forestry has developed a Statewide Communication Framework for helping Oregonians: (1) understand why we burn, (2) health risks of smoke, (3) ways to avoid smoke, (4) where burning is taking place each day, and (5) where smoke is impacting communities. This communication plan is available at https://www.oregon.gov/odf/Documents/fire/smoke-management-rules-statewide-coms-framework.pdf
Burning for healthier forests
Overcrowded forests are more prone to tree deaths from drought and insects, and typically experience greater fire intensity than woodlands where trees are more widely spaced. Prescribed burns help maintain forest health and reduce the risk of high-intensity, catastrophic wildfires and the large volume of smoke associated with such wildfires.
Yonker says fire suppression actions are more effective and lower in cost in areas with a recent history of controlled burning.
While all fires produce some smoke, the amount from burning covered slash piles is far less than from a wildfire burning an entire stand of trees. Air quality in Oregon during the September mega fires, for example, was the worst the state ever recorded.
“Wildfires often occur when the atmosphere is stable, trapping smoke close to the ground where it’s more likely to impact people,” says Yonker. “So anything we can do to reduce the amount of wildfire smoke, including doing more prescribed burning, is better for people.”
Source: Oregon Department of Forestry