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Smoke changes could ease fire risk

If you could trade a little smoke for short periods of time in the fall and spring for the weeks of dense summer smoke we’re seeing now, would you do it?

That’s the idea behind proposed changes to smoke management rules governing prescribed burns. The Oregon Department of Forestry is working with the Department of Environmental Quality to rewrite the rules to allow more flexibility in using prescribed burns to reduce grass and underbrush in forests that are particularly prone to summer wildfires.

Under existing rules, burns are prohibited if they are projected to cause any visible smoke in nearby communities. The proposed changes could allow one-hour periods of smoke if officials issued warnings to communities and provided indoor locations with filtered air.

The trade-off wouldn’t necessarily mean no more wildfire smoke. Prescribed burning is only one tool proposed to address the problem of major fires occurring more and more frequently, and it will take time to have the intended effect. Thinning overgrown forests also is a long-term proposition. As we noted in Sunday’s paper, a coalition of forest agencies and conservation groups who developed an action plan envision the work to stretch over 20 to 30 years. And climate change, another major factor driving the fires, won’t be slowed or reversed quickly either.

But as we also noted, waiting any longer to take concrete action means accepting what could be months of hazardous air quality every summer.

No one wants to breathe any more smoke than necessary, but a zero-tolerance approach to prescribed burns that could help lessen the severity of unplanned fires no longer makes sense.

State forestry officials will hold a public hearing on the proposed changes at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 29, at the Smullin Health Education Center, 2825 E. Barnett Road. Comments also may be submitted online.