Deschutes County smoke request still up in the air

Commissioners are waiting to hear back from state about smoke from controlled burns

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling


The Deschutes County Commission is waiting to hear back about its recent request for the state to loosen smoke restrictions when it comes to controlled burns near Bend and Redmond.

The state can order agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, to postpone prescribed fires if winds are likely to carry their smoke into populated areas such as the two Deschutes County cities. The state follows guidelines in deciding what controlled burns to halt, and the commissioners are asking that those rules be tweaked.

The commissioners argue that smoke blown into town from controlled burns is lighter and less of a health hazard than smoke from wildfires. They want to see the state allow more smoke from controlled burns in the cities, which would allow agencies such as the Forest Service to intentionally burn more acres in Central Oregon each spring and fall. Firefighters light controlled burns when conditions are right for lower intensity fires. The goal is to reduce the chance of large wildfires.

In a letter sent in late July to the heads of the Oregon Department of Forestry and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the commissioners point to the Two Bulls Fire in June and the Pole Creek Fire in 2012 as examples of Central Oregon wildfires that produced heavy smoke.

“The frequency, duration and magnitude of smoke experienced in Bend during recent wildfires were much more harmful than the smoke experienced during recent intrusions caused by prescribed burning in the forest,” the commissioners wrote.

The Pole Creek Fire caused thick smoke to pool around Central Oregon, creating unhealthy air.

“In Sisters when they had that fire, you couldn’t see across the street,” Commissioner Alan Unger said Friday.

“As a community, we would gladly trade a little bit of smoke under planned circumstances for less smoke during wildfires,” the commissioners wrote.

The DEQ plans to be responsive to the commissioners’ concerns, and officials there look forward to discussing smoke issues, Greg Svelund, a spokesman for the agency, wrote in an email Friday.

“Balancing forest health and public health is important, not only in Deschutes County,” he wrote, “but also in other areas of the state.”

The changes the commissioners would like to see would not result in large amounts of smoke in Bend and Redmond from prescribed burns, Commissioner Tammy Baney said Friday. Rather, she said, there would probably be slight increases in smoke overnight during such burns.

“We are not asking to have smoke in the air all the time,” she said. “That’s a public health hazard.”

Baney and Commissioner Tony DeBone echoed Unger’s thoughts about prescribed fire smoke versus wildfire smoke.

“If we have a little bit of smoke in a controlled environment, it will be a lot better than out-of-control burning,” DeBone said Friday.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com