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Prescribed Burning and Smoke Management: Backyard Burning an Forestland Prescribed Fire

DATE: April 14, 2021
Katie Gibble, Fire Adapted Communities Coordinator   Contact: 541.552.2231
Chris Chambers, Wildfire Division Chief Contact: 541.890.8816
Prescribed Burning and Smoke Management:
Backyard Burning an Forestland Prescribed Fire

The Rogue Valley Fire Chiefs Association has implemented a pause in backyard burning in the valley due to dry and hazardous conditions that have led to multiple escaped burn piles, causing property damage, and delaying responses for other emergency calls. During this time, citizens may still see smoke from the mountains surrounding the valley from prescribed burns. 
Why can these burns go ahead during a ban on backyard burns? Here’s the answer. 
  • The Medford Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) encompasses the valley floor and the immediate foothills just above the valley where inversions often trap pollution. Jackson County administers open burning in the AQMA in consultation with local fire districts who issue permits for safe residential burning. Outside the AQMA, residential burning is allowed outside of fire season, but still with permits from local fire agencies. This system satisfies the County’s agreement with Oregon DEQ for maintaining air quality in the AQMA as required by the Clean Air Act. 
  • Forestland burning, including burning done for industrial timber operations and reducing wildfire danger using prescribed burns, is regulated by a different set of rules governed by the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF). Each burn is analyzed by ODF meteorologists in the smoke management office in Salem. Forecasters closely look at each burn, the local weather conditions and past history of burning to determine if the burn can be done without undue smoke intrusions into the valley. Weather conditions can differ widely between valley bottom and the hills and mountains surrounding the valley, which explains why the boundaries of the AQMA are drawn tightly to the valley floor and why forestland burning is allowed at certain times of year when backyard burning in the AQMA is not. 
  • Forestland burning can be safely and effectively accomplished even when valley bottoms are dry. Higher elevations have higher moisture content, are more humid, and experience different wind patterns than the valley, lengthening the safe burn season considerably (patches of snow still exist in current prescribed burn areas). 
  • If a burn is on ODF protected land, a site visit and permit are completed by ODF requiring crew numbers, safe burn weather, fire lines or roads as boundaries, and suppression resources including fire engines and water on site. If the burn is on U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management public lands, the same, and often more, resources and requirements are put in place for a safe and effective burn. Spring and fall burns are staffed by dozens of qualified wildland firefighters and burn bosses with years of experience and lengthy qualifications to safely lead a burn. 
Prescribed fire has been shown through decades of research and field experience along with post-wildfire reviews to be effective at mitigating the burn intensity of a wildfire, preserve timber values, ecosystem functions, water quality, and saving communities from exposure to destructive wildfires.

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