The Oregon Environmental Quality Commission approved new smoke rules Thursday that should make it easier to use prescribed burns to lessen overall wildfire risk.

Using prescribed fire during cooler and wetter times of the year can go a long way toward making forests more resilient to major wildfires. But it’s been hard for land managers to find windows to burn because of a zero-tolerance policy for smoke entering communities. Prescribed fires could be cut off or canceled if smoke strays where it shouldn’t — an event regulators call a “smoke intrusion.”

“This change will allow relatively low levels of smoke from prescribed burning to occur more frequently in communities. And that’s a tradeoff for reducing the potential for much worse smoke incidence from wildfire in the summer season,” said Department of Environmental Quality director Richard Whitman.

The revised Smoke Management Plan would allow some smoke from prescribed burning, as long as it measures well below levels considered harmful for sensitive groups. On the color-based system used for air quality alerts, the cutoff would be within the yellow or “moderate” category. The rules also designate limits for the 24-hour average of smoke in communities.

Using these new limits, DEQ calculated that 80 percent of the smoke intrusions over the past decade would no longer rise to that punitive level.

Smoke covers a hillside in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon during a prescribed burn operation.
 

Smoke covers a hillside in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon during a prescribed burn operation.  

Jes Burns/OPB

The new rules apply to public and private landowners, and include smoke from pile burning on industrial timberlands.

Support for the changes has not been unanimous; some health and air quality advocates objected during the rule-making process.

Still others asked for even more flexibility to use fire to restore forests.

Communities interested in promoting prescribed burns will also be able to apply to state regulators for exemptions to occasionally allow higher hourly smoke totals, which would provide even more flexibility.

“We’ll be able to do the amount of controlled burning, which will occasionally will put a small amount of smoke for not a long time into the community, just because of weather conditions,” said Ashland Mayor John Stromburg.

Much of Ashland is surrounded by fire-prone forests, and the city has been proactive in supporting work to reduce the wildfire risk.

The new state smoke rules require these interested communities to create and approve a “community response plan” designed to inform and protect people from the smoke.

The next step for state regulators is to determine the requirements for these plans. Stromburg said Ashland intends to apply for the exemption and is waiting for those details to be released.

The more lenient air quality standards still fall within federal limits set by the Clean Air Act. The Department of Environmental Quality will seek approval from the EPA for the new plan. But DEQ’s Whitman says that process (and any delays caused by the government shutdown, should it continue) will not prevent the Smoke Management Plan update to go into effect in time for the spring prescribed fire season.

Correction: Jan. 25, 2019. An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the type of smoke the revised Smoke Management Plan would regulate. It would regulate smoke from prescribed burning,