Perhaps nothing has been more irritating this summer in Central Oregon than the persistent wildfire smoke. Almost every summer activity — those that weren’t canceled, anyway — came with an unwelcome lungful.
Oregon’s Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, have called for changes in the way the federal government fights fires. But what may be more important to prevent wildfire from threatening homes in Central Oregon is a change in the way the state manages smoke.
Oregon’s Smoke Management Plan can’t do anything directly about wildfire smoke. The plan is about controlling smoke from prescribed burns — burns purposely set to reduce wildfire danger. State officials are considering changes to the plan. The plan needs it, as laid out in a letter from the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project scheduled for discussion at Wednesday’s meeting of the Bend City Council.
Bend and Redmond are designated as “smoke sensitive receptor areas” under the smoke-management plan. They get the highest level of protection from smoke. Essentially, Bend and Redmond are never supposed to have smoke waft in from a prescribed burn. But it happens all the time.
A prescribed burn — planned for instance near Bend — is set so the wind is forecast to blow the main smoke plume away from town. What inevitably happens at night is smoke drifts in anyway. The smoke-management plan is violated. An intrusion report is written. The sizes of burns can get smaller and smaller to avoid intrusion.
That doesn’t help achieve the goal of reducing long-term risks of wildfire. The area near Bend needs more mowing, thinning and burning, not less. The proposal is to increase the smoke threshold for the dry side of the state to reflect that reality.
Increasing the smoke threshold will mean more problems for people with asthma and other respiratory issues. So any change in the smoke-management plan must include a matching effort to ensure those people are notified and have protection in place to help them. But the thresholds for prescribed burns need to be changed. Short-term, predictable smoke exposure is better than rolling the dice with wildfire.