Diane Werich often wears a mask to help control her asthma, but on smoky days caused by controlled forest burning, she has to stay indoors. Federal officials say controlled burns help reduce the risk of wildfires and are important for improving forest health. - Jim Craven

Burning issue won't go away

On a sunny spring morning, there is nothing longtime Ashland resident Diane Werich enjoys more than heading out to the mountains.

"I'm an outdoors person — I look forward to mountain biking in the spring," said Werich, 62, a clinical social worker.

However, as a mild asthmatic susceptible to bronchitis, her plans to spend a spring day mountain biking are dashed when the region is enveloped by smoke from a controlled burn on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District or the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

"Breathing smoke ruins my day," she said. "If they are burning, I have a choice between biking and feeling like hell for a couple of days or not biking. It's depressing to have to be sequestered inside."

Werich, who describes herself as a person with "a lot of common sense from a blue-collar family of Lutherans," wonders why the agencies can't dramatically reduce their annual spring and fall controlled burns.

"With global warming, carbon release for preventing carbon release doesn't make sense to me," she said, adding, "They need to find a better way."

Both the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service, who plan to burn some 4,000 acres in the region this spring, say they are working to reduce controlled burning.

"The problem is, while there are other ways to get the material off the ground, there is no other way to mimic what fire does for our forests," said Jim Whittington, spokesman for the BLM's Medford District, where plans call for nearly 3,000 acres to be burned this spring.

"We live in a fire-adapted ecosystem," he added. "For it to be healthy, we have to bring fire back into the way we manage our forests."

Some species, such as ponderosa pine, grow better when a low-intensity fire clears out the understory while improving the soil, he said.

"Everybody who works in this business agrees that if we get a wildfire, the smoke from it is significantly worse than from our controlled burns," Whittington said.

The agencies are trying to strike a balance between keeping air pollution to a minimum while managing local public woodlands, added Patty Burel, spokeswoman for the national forest, where 1,095 acres are scheduled to be burned this spring.

"We realize the short-term trade-offs but hope people understand the long-term benefits," she said, listing those benefits as reducing fire hazards near rural communities, reducing insect and disease outbreaks and improving forest health and wildlife habitat.

"But we are all trying to reduce controlled burning as much as we can," she added.

Since humans have been suppressing wildfires for more than a century throughout the region, creating overstocked forests ripe for catastrophic wildfires, it will take years to reach a balance, officials said.

The agencies generally employ underburning during the spring while pile burning is done during the late fall and early winter.

If done properly, an understory burn doesn't harm large trees but results in a low-intensity fire that removes "ladder fuels" that could otherwise ignite large trees during a summer fire, officials said.

Areas where there have been recent controlled burns slow down a wildfire, giving firefighters a chance to stop it before it threatens a rural community, they say.

"Conditions have to be just right for underburning," Whittington said. "If it's too wet or too cold, the fire won't be active enough. But if it's too hot or too windy, the fire may do too much."

The federal agencies work closely with the Oregon Department of Forestry as well as Oregon's Smoke Management Office, which determines when weather conditions are suitable for adequate smoke dispersal.

Both federal agencies get angry calls when people get a whiff of smoke from controlled burns. Because of the BLM district's lower-elevation checkerboard pattern among private parcels, its controlled burns often receive more heat from the public.

For instance, the BLM district office received about 100 complaint calls when smoke from a controlled burn near Gold Hill in mid-April socked in much of the Rogue Valley for several hours, Whittington said.

"We try to make it into a science, but sometimes Mother Nature throws you a curveball," he said. "The fire did what we wanted it to do but the wind didn't. As soon as we saw that wind shift, we stopped our ignition."

The district cleared some 20,000 tons of forest debris to provide energy for the local biomass plant in 2007 but hopes to dramatically increase that amount in the coming years, he said.

"Part of the problem is the cost," he said, noting the price tag for an underburn is $150 to $200 an acre while hand-piling slash and burning it is $650 an acre.

"To get the biomass out, it's probably a little less than piling and burning," he added.

The growing price of fuel is also eating into the agencies' options, Burel said.

"We provide opportunities for biomass when it makes economic sense," she said. "But with more than a million acres in the forest, transportation costs are often just too high."

For updated, recorded fire information about the BLM's Medford District or Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest prescribed burns, call 618-2354 or 1-800-267-3126.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

Share This Story