News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Slash pile burning created smoky skies

Slash burning in Deschutes National Forest west of Sisters caused unhealthy air and confusion about burning regulations last Friday and Saturday. Large landing piles were lit Friday morning by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS).

By afternoon, they looked like early solstice bonfires. Smoke billowed in columns of slush-gray and pine-yellow. Walking among the fires, the forest looked like a scene from “The Lord of the Rings” movies, with signal fires blooming across snow-capped peaks.

USFS chose Friday to burn landing piles despite indications of stagnant air in the area. In town, measurements of PM2.5, fine particulate matter, pushed up to 183 on Friday, according to the World Air Quality Project’s realtime air quality map. The map uses monitoring data from sources including the State of Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

The 183 level is in the “red zone,” considered unhealthy for breathing — slightly worse than Beijing’s air quality, which stood at 181 that day. The red zone covers fine particulate matter measurements of 151 through 200.

According to AQICN, “Everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effect.”

By Saturday morning, a shroud of smog wrapped around the homes of Crossroads, several miles west of town near Highway 242.

USFS Fire Management Officer James Osbourne told The Nugget, “We took a number of calls because of the air stagnation reports.”

On Thursday, Crossroads residents had received notices stating: “Please be advised that Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire Department has closed outdoor burning due to a DEQ Air Quality Advisory for stagnant air in your area. It is expected to remain closed until 12/07/19.”

The Forest Service’s “front liner” answering the phone heard from Crossroads residents, according to Osbourne. “Everybody was like, ‘You guys can burn, why can’t we burn?’”

Osbourne explained that “Federal government and forest service do not fall under the SCSFD [Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire Department] guidance. We coordinate with the Oregon DEQ, and we coordinate with Oregon’s Department of Forestry Smoke Management.”

The Forest Service’s prescribed underburns go through June, he added; the general public at that point can’t burn.

In the wake of the Milli Fire, private timber companies conducted cutting and whole-tree yarding under contract with USFS in the spring of 2018. The slash piles west of town, including those in the IO stewardship near Crossroads, were created by branches and other debris left over from logging operations.

“We’ve been working the Milli slash piles and stewardship slash piles…” said Osbourne. “We’ve been trying to tackle those larger piles due to the snow, while we still have access.”

Homeowners were concerned about the effects of the burning “on the air quality in the community and the proximity of the fire to Crossroads,” said Audra Bemis, association manager for Mile High Community Management, which is under contract with Crossroads Property Owners Association.

By Saturday at 11 a.m., dense smog had begun to lift, but smoke still hung in the air. Air quality levels in that area of the forest are unknown. Levels in town dropped to the moderate “yellow zone,” with a PM2.5 count of 76.

“We follow guidelines from ODF smoke management, the Oregon Department of Forestry, in debris burning,” confirmed Sisters District Ranger Ian Reid.

The Forest Service provides ODF with information on where, when, and how much they intend to burn, “how many tons per acre,” said Osbourne.

ODF issues guidance “on what we can burn on a particular day, and they give us a smoke forecast, based on NOAA, telling us when we can have the fire,” Osbourne continued. NOAA is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Said Osbourne of slash burning, “It’s not always glamorous and the public doesn’t always appreciate it. The reality is that if we don’t remove it, it’s going to allow Crossroads to be evacuated again.” (See related story, page 14.) Crossroads was evacuated during Milli.

There was an apparent incident of Christmas tree poaching during the burning.

Near one burn pile, two voices could be heard hooting and hollering, followed by the distinctive whine of a chainsaw. Then new voices could be heard, arguing, and a pair of pedestrians left the area. A vehicle could be heard starting up.

The celebrants left behind two perfect Christmas trees lying in the snow: a newly cut spruce and a tall fir. The fir lay abandoned next to its own stump, fresh with sawdust; several of its lower limbs were hacked off. Reid said that he would notify a Forest Service law enforcement officer about the felled trees.


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