Taylor Creek smoke.jpg
Mail Tribune file photo
Smoke billows up from the Taylor Creek fire burning west of Grants Pass and Merlin.

Exchanging more smoke for less fire

State officials will visit Medford next week in one of several public hearings on proposals intended to reduce the lung-choking smoke that has become all too common in the state each summer by increasing controlled burns in non-fire seasons.

Oregon departments of Forestry and Environmental Quality will hold the hearing, which is set for 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 29, at the Smullin Health Education Center, 2825 E. Barnett Road.

The hearings come as Oregon suffers through one of its smokiest years. Medford has recorded 23 unhealthy air quality days due to smoke this summer, the most since records tracking smoke levels began in 2000. On five occasions the air quality has moved into hazardous levels, surpassing 300 on the state’s air quality index.

Southern Oregon, which has had numerous forest fires burning since a July 15 lightning storm, is not alone in suffering poor air quality. It has affected virtually every area in the state — on Monday, Pendleton was recording hazardous air quality levels from smoke produced by a fire in Gilliam County.

The new rules being considered by the state would make it easier to set controlled burns in non-fire season, in hopes of reducing the threat of major wildfires.

State regulators will hold public hearings in five cities often affected by smoke from wildfires; Bend, Klamath Falls, LaGrande and Eugene also have meetings scheduled.

Under the proposals, there would no longer be a strict ban against allowing controlled burns projected to cause visible smoke in nearby communities. The prescribed burns, however, would have to remain under certain state and federal air quality standards.

The prescribed fires help reduce grass, weeds, underbrush and small trees, which not only reduces the fire hazard, but also protects larger trees.

State Forester Peter Daugherty told Oregon Public Broadcasting that in some cases, air quality standards could be breached for one-hour periods in communities particularly vulnerable to wildfire if they develop programs to protect vulnerable populations. Such programs could include providing community warnings of prescribed fires and indoor locations providing filtered air.

However, a representative of the American Lung Association in Oregon, Carrie Nyssen, told OPB that she did not think the association “could ever get to a place where we support prescribed burning.”

Richard Whitman, director of the Department of Environmental Quality, said in the OPB story he is also concerned about degrading air quality.

The “devil in the detail here is how to do more prescribed burning,” he said, “but do it in a way that’s smart and that does not create unexpected problems in communities.”

The proposed rule changes must be approved by both the state Board of Forestry and by the Environmental Quality Commission. Officials hope that they will be in place by the spring of 2019.

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