It’s officially prescribed fire season in many parts of Oregon. Here is a bit of background and a run down of some of the advantages and disadvantages.
As uncomfortable as it is for many of us to accept it (human nature), wildfire is a normal process for Oregon’s forests, a process that was suppressed for much of the last century. Our forests have evolved over thousands of years with fire, with some of our tree species like the knobcone pine requiring fire to reseed.
The goal of prescribed fire is to reduce fuels (small trees, fallen branches, grasses, etc) in the forest. The theory is that these forests will then be less likely to burn in the heat of summer when fire is harder to control. On the upside prescribed fires generally mimic the natural processes in our forests - far more so than logging does.
On the downside, prescribed fire does produce smoke. And after last summer we’re all skittish about any smoke. It doesn’t take a physician to know that smoke in the air isn’t good for our health. The flip side of this argument is that prescribed fires are typically done with great effort to minimize smoke in communities. If there is smoke from a prescribed fire it typically lasts one 24 hour cycle before it’s blown out.
The Forest Service fire experts and other agencies will only set fires under a very strict set of weather conditions. Humidity, wind, temperature, available fuels and forecast are all factored in, greatly narrowing the window for prescribed fire. The locations chosen are most often forests that are between communities and the backcountry - places where reduced fuels could help protect those communities should a summer fire occur.
One argument in favor of prescribed fires is that we can have our bite sized doses of smoke in the spring and fall or we can risk the big weeks long smoke events in summer. This is a bit of an oversimplification but generally holds true. There is no guarantee that a prescribed fire today prevents or slows a fire this summer, but there are a number of examples where that has happened.
If you live on the coast or in the Willamette Valley you can realistically hope to not have to deal with significant smoke events most summers. If you live in eastern/central/southern Oregon there is no option anyone can offer that doesn’t include smoke. Fire is simply unavoidable.
How can we all prepare for prescribed fire and summer fires? Installing air filters in your home is an effective step to ensure good air quality. If you live near forests that are prone to fire you can keep your gutters clear, trim branches near your home and take other firewise steps.