Stephen Hamway
The Bulletin

Central Oregon fire managers are hopeful that looser statewide rules on smoke will make it easier to complete prescribed burns near Bend and other population centers, even if it means more smoke in town during the spring and fall.

A new set of rules from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, which govern how much smoke from prescribed burns is allowed to enter nearby communities, went into effect March 1. Michael Orman, air quality planning section manager, said the rules loosen what had been a zero-tolerance standard for smoke in cities.

The change may mean more smoke in Central Oregon cities during the shoulder seasons, when most of the prescribed burning takes place.

But Deschutes County Forester Ed Keith said the new rules give forest managers more flexibility to complete prescribed burns near Bend, which have proven to be uniquely challenging to complete. This, in turn, could lower the risk of a devastating wildfire.

“Having no fire is not an option here,” Keith said.

Orman said the state environmental agency and the Oregon Department of Forestry began reviewing the state’s smoke management rules in 2017. The state agencies assembled a collection of forest managers, public health officials and other stakeholders, in order to find a way to allow more proactive burning near population centers without adversely harming residents, especially those with sensitive respiratory systems.

“It’s a way for us to achieve that balance we’re trying to seek,” Orman said.

Under DEQ’s old rules, a smoke intrusion occurred whenever there was any visible smoke in a community, Orman said. The new rules correspond to federal air quality standards measured over a one-hour or a 24-hour period. Burns could be stopped if the concentration of particles in the air reaches a level that officials consider unhealthy for sensitive groups.

Prescribed fire has been a useful tool for forest managers looking to reduce the overgrowth of fuels that allow wildfires to grow quickly through forests in Central Oregon and beyond.

Jodie Barram, program director for Project Wildfire, which directs fire planning and education in Deschutes County, said prescribed burns not only keep the forest ecosystem healthier by simulating historic, low-intensity fires, but also allow firefighters to fight wildfires more effectively, because they can use areas burned in the past to slow the fire’s progress.

“I think there’s agreement that we want a healthy ecosystem on the landscape,” Barram said.

Keith said prescribed burn areas near Bend, where the forest meets the edge of the city, are among the most important in the region, but they’re also among the most difficult to complete because of the challenges associated with keeping smoke out of the city. The West Bend project, a 26,000-acre portion of the Deschutes National Forest near the city, is among the highest-priority areas in Central Oregon, but its proximity to Bend makes it hard to keep smoke away from residents.

“I think we’re doing a lot more (burning) than pretty much any other community right next to our population,” Keith said.

Making matters worse, Keith and Orman said Bend’s topography works against fire managers trying to keep smoke away. Keith said cold air and smoke tend to settle in the Deschutes River corridor overnight, even if it disperses when the weather warms during the day.

Because of that, Bend experiences more smoke intrusions than other fire-prone regions. Keith said Bend had 22 smoke intrusions from prescribed burns over a seven-year period, more than any other community. Smoke intrusions are reported to DEQ, which can delay or cancel controlled burns. Keith said that makes it hard to make headway on long-term burn projects.

“When we burn less acres and you don’t get any more days, we’re not making very good progress in preparing for wildfire season,” Keith said.

However, Keith said the new rules will go a long way toward making it easier to burn close to town. Retroactively applying the rules, the 22 smoke intrusions would drop to 8 over the same period, Keith said.

Additionally, the state rules offer the option for certain smoke-prone cities and regions, including Bend, to devise community plans that address how the public will be notified about prescribed burns. If such a plan is adopted, a community will be exempt from the one-hour smoke standard. Keith said this would further drop the number of smoke intrusions in Bend to two over the seven-year period.

“We’re going to continually be challenged with that until we need that exemption,” Keith said.

During a Deschutes County Commission meeting Wednesday, commissioners expressed interest in moving forward with the planning process. Keith said he was optimistic the county could have such a plan in place later this spring.

Keith and Barram stressed that the new rules aren’t going to leave the door open for smoke to blanket Bend every spring and fall morning.

Keith said the rules give forest managers more flexibility but won’t dramatically change the total number of acres burned in Deschutes County every year.

“I don’t see us all of a sudden doubling our acreage, or anything like that,” Keith said.

Barram said the focus will be on making sure Central Oregon residents know where and when a prescribed burn happens. Last year, the region’s fire officials debuted a website, www.centraloregonfire.org, that is designed to keep residents updated about where burning is taking place.

“If you see smoke in a certain area, it takes away that concern that it could be a wildfire,” Barram said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

22760663