Another sunny morning brought more smoke from prescribed fires to Bend on Tuesday, and Bendites can likely expect the smoke to linger for at least one more day.
Following a burn Sunday southwest of Bend that contributed Monday to the city’s worst day of air quality since the Milli Fire was contained, the U.S. Forest Service announced more burns near Bend for Tuesday and Wednesday.
The goal, according to the Forest Service, is to manage overgrown areas of forest near the city, where wildfires could easily spread.
“In order to be a healthy community, we need a healthy forest,” said Kassidy Kern, public affairs specialist for the Deschutes National Forest.
Ignition began Monday morning on a 109-acre parcel of Forest Service land about a mile southwest of Bend off Cascade Lakes Highway. The parcel is across the highway from the Rimrock trailhead, where the agency burned 350 acres on Sunday. Kern said the agency also got approved to ignite on Tuesday a separate area that is about 4 miles north of Black Butte Ranch in the Sisters Ranger District.
On Wednesday, the Forest Service plans to burn 94 acres in Shevlin Park, through an agreement with the Bend Parks & Recreation District. Alex Enna, prescribed fire manager for the Deschutes National Forest, said Tuesday that the Forest Service will likely hold off on burning more on Thursday.
Friday could bring prescribed burns near Sunriver, but no burns are planned for the weekend with rain in the forecast, Enna said.
While the smoke in Bend Tuesday didn’t approach the levels seen on Monday, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality measured the particle pollution as “moderate” for several hours Tuesday morning.
No one has been admitted to St. Charles Bend with symptoms associated with smoke exposure, public information officer Lisa Goodman said. Bend-La Pine Schools have had no closures or schedule changes because of smoke, spokeswoman Alandra Johnson said.
Overnight weather patterns have contributed to the smoke in Bend, but the proximity of the burns is also a factor, Enna said.
The Forest Service and the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project, which includes representatives from a variety of local forestry groups, have prioritized burns near Bend’s western edge.
The forest west of Bend was logged heavily in the early 20th century by the Shevlin-Hixon and Brooks-Scanlon mills in Bend, said Ed Keith, Deschutes County forester and a member of the collaborative forest project’s steering committee. The logging destroyed the natural pattern of that part of the forest and left it with significant fuel for wildfire when it regrew, he said. Because of that overgrowth and its proximity to Bend, the area is a high priority.
Forest managers began igniting the West Bend project, a 26,000-acre portion of the forest, in 2014, but a short window for prescribed burns limits the amount of work they can do each year, Keith said.
In Central Oregon, prescribed burns tend to begin in early April and continue through the end of May, as local agencies prepare for wildfire season later in the summer. However, not all spring days are ideal for prescribed burns, Enna said.
The district looks for relative humidity levels between 20 percent and 45 percent, and temperatures between 50 degrees and 80 degrees, he said. For burns on Bend’s western edge, the agency wants winds out of the northeast, which push smoke away from the city.
The agency also waits several days after the forest receives significant rainfall. Enna estimated that only five to eight days each year, mainly during the spring, check each box.
“We don’t have a lot of windows on the west side of town,” Enna said.
This year, wet weather in early April put a damper on some projects, meaning there were even fewer opportunities to burn, Kern said.
To mitigate the impact of the smoke, Keith recommended that residents keep their windows and doors closed and use recirculating air systems. Residents should also plan outdoor activities during periods with less smoke in the air, he said.
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