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Smoke from BLM burns slipped into Rogue Valley over weekend

Unexpected change in wind direction was behind poor air quality, officials say
 Posted: 2:00 AM May 22, 2012

Smoke from controlled burns blew into the valley for the second weekend in a row, obscuring visibility and bringing with it unhealthy air for people with sensitive bronchial conditions.

"It upsets us when these things happen," said Jim Whittington, spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management Medford District. "We're not doing it intentionally."

The BLM received approval for the burns under the Oregon Smoke Management Plan after weather forecasts indicated winds would blow away from populated areas.

Unfortunately, the wind had a mind of its own and the smoke funneled into Rogue River and the Medford basin.

On May 11, 12 and 13, air quality reached unhealthful levels for those with sensitive bronchial conditions, according to Oregon Department of Environmental Quality monitors. The BLM burns were located southeast of Rogue River.

On Sunday, smoke again swept into the valley from a BLM controlled burn northeast of Rogue River, but air quality didn't appear to reach unhealthy levels in the valley, according to the DEQ. However, in Rogue River, local residents had difficulty viewing the solar eclipse Sunday because of the smoke.

Whittington said though it's difficult to burn in the area around Rogue River, controlled burns are necessary for wildfire control. He said three years ago, the wind direction changed and smoke poured into the valley from another controlled burn in that area.

"It's a real tricky spot to burn," he said.

Whittington said managers decide to burn in the Rogue River area when winds are forecast to blow away from Grants Pass and Medford.

When the wind direction changes, the BLM stops lighting. But it's difficult to stop burning in areas that already have been lit, he said. Sometimes fires can smoulder for days.

If the BLM doesn't burn in the spring, it risks having a wildfire get out of control later in the summer, Whittington said.

He said the BLM is trying to burn off the forest floor on about 2,500 acres in Jackson and Josephine counties before summer starts.

If a wildfire breaks out, these burned areas provide a defensible space that helps firefighters block advancing flames.

Whittington said the BLM typically has a window of only 10 days to two weeks to stage controlled burns in the spring.

When smoke does pour into the valley, the BLM receives complaints from the DEQ and the public.

Oregon Department of Forestry spokesman Brian Ballou said his department's Smoke Management Plan looks at forecasts and attempts to predict whether smoke will be swept into populated areas.

Only after the situation is assessed does the ODF give the BLM permission to light fires.

"We gave them the green light under the smoke management plan and according to the forecast," Ballou said. "For the most part, the system works, but sometimes the wind fails us."

John Becker, air quality manager for the DEQ, said he sent emails to both the ODF and BLM that underscored the problem of smoke creating unhealthy air in the valley.

He said the DEQ received calls from residents of Rogue River who said smoke obscured their view of the solar eclipse.

"Things didn't go as they thought it would go for one reason or another," he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email dmann@mailtribune.com.


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