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Wildfire season in southern Oregon and far-northern California is starting earlier, lasting longer and putting more smoke into the air than ever before. Rural economies based on tourism and outdoor recreation are seeing losses mount, year after year, as visitors cancel vacations to smoke-afflicted areas. Now, locals are facing the prospect of a "new normal" that threatens the livability of their communities.

How Do You Want Your Smoke?

There’s broad agreement that fire plays a vital role in forest ecology in the West. Many of our problems with severe wildfires can be traced, at least in part, to a century of putting fires out, rather than letting them clean up excess forest fuels.

Now, there’s a need to deliberately set controlled fires to help re-establish a more natural fire pattern. 

But after a summer in which residents and tourists alike choked on foul air and many events were canceled due to heavy smoke, are people ready to put up with more smoke from prescribed burns?

Jon Larson is standing on a steep northern slope in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon, above the town of Ruch … He’s overseeing a prescribed fire that’s slowly burning through woody debris on the forest floor.

“What we’re looking at here is a really light, cool sort of underburn to reduce the finer fuels,” he says.

The fire isn’t very hot, but it’s plenty smoky and Larson daubs  stinging eyes and runny noses as he walks the edge of the 138 acre burn.

Larson is a fire management specialist with the Bureau of Land Management in Medford. He says that – given the proximity to local communities – it’s important not only to keep the fire under control, but also to minimize impacts from the smoke.

“You have to look at really where the smoke is going to go, and mainly that concern is at nighttime and in the morning hours,” he says. “The smoke wants to tend to settle into the low drainage areas.”

Larson says that, for the most part, the locals know why his crew is adding fire to the valley and don’t register many complaints about the additional smoke.

In other communities in the West, land managers aren’t so lucky.

Jen Hensiek is the Missoula District Ranger at the Lolo National Forest in western Montana.

“The last time we had prescribed burning – besides piles – in the Rattlesnake was in the ‘90s. And the public was really unhappy with us,” she says.

Hensiek says the negative public reaction to prescribed burning 20 years ago is one reason that officials are only recently putting fire back on the ground in the Rattlesnake Creek area near Missoula. A lingering “smoke fatigue” in the community after weeks of unhealthy air from wildfires last summer doesn’t help, either.

Hensiek says the new push is accompanied by an intense public outreach and education effort.

“Utilizing social media tools, utilizing all our mailing lists for mountain bike and running clubs, things like that. We are also knocking on neighbors’ door all over the place. Leaving them maps, hanging flyers … It’s a lot of work.”

Hensiek is trying to build what she calls “social capital” to get locals onboard with the growing consensus that one way to have less destructive wildfire is to use controlled burning to help re-establish fire’s natural place in the forest ecosystem.

Recent research bolsters that case. The Fire Sciences Laboratory of the U-S Forest Service has found that thinning overstocked forests isn’t by itself enough to significantly reduce wildfire severity. Only when fuel reduction is followed by prescribed burning does treated acreage burn more moderately.

Robert Yokelson, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Montana, co-authored a study published last June that suggests smoke from prescribed burns is more benign than wildfire smoke.

“With prescribed fires you’ll make less pollution for the same area burned,” he says. “And you can also burn those fires under conditions that you can control where the smoke goes better.”

Still, Missoula Ranger Jen Hensiek says, it’s a heavy lift to get a program of prescribed burning established.

“You take on a lot of liability,” she says. “Whether it’s smoke management or impact to private lands, those kinds of things, so outside of the fact that we want to do this and we’re passionate about it for our community and this is what science tells us needs to be done … There’s really not a lot of incentive to do it.”

Chris Chambers can feel her pain … Chambers is with the Ashland, Oregon Fire Department. He has a major role in Ashland’s ongoing program to restore much of the 15,000-acre watershed on the city’s doorstep. And he says a lot of meticulous planning goes into timing a prescribed burn.

“We’re not doing it in the middle of the summer, we’re not doing it at times of the year where we know smoke is going to be a significant issue for the community or at least not on days when we know it will be. So that we’re trying to keep as much smoke away from the community as we possibly can,” he says.

Chambers says over the years, that careful approach has led to community acceptance of the program. But, he says, it also makes it hard to do as much burning as needs to be done. He says prepared burn piles on about a thousand acres of the watershed will go unburned this year.

“We’re held back by the smoke management program at the state level and also just the fear that we’re gonna get smoke into town and it’s gonna cause issues.”

Chambers says that as a more natural fire ecology is re-established – and as the climate continues to warm -- people across the West are going to have to choose whether to accept a little smoke from prescribed burns now, or endure entire summers of wildfire smoke later.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.