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A little smoke now is a small price to pay

With the advent of cold, wet weather, smoke plumes began appearing in the nearby hills, especially above Ashland. Predictably, some residents are complaining about that, especially if they can smell smoke in town.

Prescribed burning of slash piles occurs every fall and spring — the “shoulder seasons” between the summer fire season and the winter. Strict rules govern when that burning can take place. The state Department of Environmental Quality’s Smoke Management Program sets out those rules, which govern the actions of state and federal crews working to remove slash from forestland.

Some of it is debris left behind after logging operations, and some of it is the result of thinning work in the Ashland Watershed, designed to remove flammable material and underbrush to make the forest more fire-resistant in the hot, dry months.

The existing rules say prescribed burning can take place only when weather conditions mean no visible smoke will drift into nearby communities. Weather prediction is an inexact science, and winds can shift unexpectedly, pushing some smoke where it is not supposed to go. It also can be difficult to tell, especially at night, whether smoke in the air is coming from burns in the mountains or from a neighbor’s wood stove.

In any case, DEQ officials are proposing a change in the rules that would allow one-hour periods of smoke in communities if officials issued warnings and provided indoor locations with filtered air for people who wanted to avoid breathing any smoke. The change is being proposed in an attempt to increase the number of acres that can be burned each year.

Hearings were held around the state in August, including one in Medford, and a public comment period closed Sept. 14.

The Environmental Quality Commission — DEQ’s rule-making body — is expected to consider the changes in its meeting Jan. 24-25 in Corvallis. If approved — and we think they should be — the changes could take effect in the spring.

No one wants to breathe smoke at any time, and it’s understandable that people resent state officials’ allowing activities that deliberately create it. But a little smoke from prescribed burns is a far cry from the choking haze we all endured for much of summer 2018.

There is no guarantee that enduring a little smoke now will prevent much worse smoke next fire season, but the odds are better with more prescribed burning than without it. Given the severity of recent wildfires, a zero-tolerance policy toward burning aimed at reducing that risk is a luxury this region can no longer afford.