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Smoke exemption is a reasonable request

The city of Ashland is asking county commissioners to sign off on its request to conduct more prescribed burning in the Ashland Watershed. The city is asking for an exemption from state smoke rules that limit the amount of ground-level smoke allowed to enter populated areas. That is an unfortunate side effect of reducing fuel loads to prevent catastrophic wildfire in the summer months, but we think some smoke for brief periods in fall and spring is better than a lot of smoke for weeks during fire season.

The key to loosening state smoke restrictions will be communication with the public and mitigation measures to protect vulnerable populations.

The city has conducted prescribed burning in the watershed for years, thinning small-diameter trees and brush with the help of partners and burning the resulting debris. The efforts fell behind schedule last spring because restrictions from the coronavirus pandemic.

State rules at one time permitted no smoke at all from prescribed burns, but that policy was eased last year. New rules allow moderate levels for short periods, and exemptions can be granted to communities that still have trouble keeping up with the work.

Those exemptions require taking steps to protect residents. Ashland has purchased 500 air purifiers for residents and eight high-capacity purifiers to create smoke refuges when necessary.

The important consideration here is the potential to prevent summer wildfires that can blanket the area with dense smoke for weeks on end, in exchange for relatively few smoky days in the off-season. City data indicate the worst incident of smoke from prescribed burning entering town pushed air quality readings into the unhealthy category for two hours.

In the past three years, during the late fall-to-early-summer period, 31 days have seen moderate or worse air quality, but five or fewer of those were prescribed burning days. By comparison, summer and fall saw 143 smoky days in those three years.

Fire officials must make sure to alert the public when burning is planned, especially in light of this year’s catastrophic Almeda fire. Residents are understandably fearful of a repeat, and it’s essential that they know when prescribed burns are scheduled. Mitigation measures are also important to protect sensitive groups.

County approval of the exemption request is only a first step. State officials have the final word, and the power to revoke an exemption if prescribed burning generates too much ground-level smoke.

County commissioners should approve Ashland’s request in the interest of preventing future wildfires.