Amending Oregon’s Air Quality Rules to Allow More Prescribed Fire

A Natural Resource Policy Brief

By: Brittany West, Garrett Carpenter, Josh Wood and Kolton Vickers

Fast Facts:
  • Serious need to reduce fuel loads
  • Untreated fuels when burned create more hazardous conditions for public and firefighters
  • Prescribed burning much more cost efficient than letting small fires escape into large fires
  • Revising current regulations would allow for managers to properly burn more easily

It is difficult to conduct prescribed fires in Oregon due to the state’s strict air quality regulations. While the regulations do ensure a high level of air quality in the state, they also severely restrict prescribed burning, which is critical for safety and forest health. While prescribed fires do create smoke, when compared to wildfire smoke it has a much lower impact on air quality and human health. This is because managers have no control over the conditions when a wildfire starts, which often means wildfires are much bigger and do not occur during favourable weather (Berger et al., 2019).

Evidence of the significant impact wildfires have on air quality can be seen in the air quality data from 2018, in which 93% of all poor air quality days are as a result of wildfires (Burns and Miller, 2019). In contrast to prescribed fires, wildfires generally last longer and consume more vegetation per acre, which also means they generate more smoke (Berger et al., 2019).

To combat this air quality barrier, Oregon approved a policy for new air quality rules to allow more prescribed fire within the state, attempting to address these issues around executing prescribed fire operations. The revised air quality rules allow some smoke from prescribed burning, as long as it measures well below levels considered harmful for sensitive groups. 

There is more that can, and needs to be done to combat this air quality barrier. The hourly limit in the new air quality rules needs to be removed, or lessened, to allow more prescribed burn flexibility, and communities need to become more prepared for smoke to ensure the health and safety of the public. Smoke Sensitive Receptor Areas, which are areas designated for the highest level of protection under the Smoke Management Plan, should also become more prepared for any smoke that may enter the area. Being prepared to deal with smoke from prescribed fire is a key part of allowing them to be implemented without the serious health implications of any potential smoke.

  • The hourly limit needs to be removed, or lessened, to allow more prescribed burn flexibility.
  • Community Response Plans (CRP) need to be developed in every Oregon community, to ensure the health and safety of the public, preparing them for any unhealthy air quality days produced by prescribed fires.
  • Applicable SSRA’s create a similar response plan which could be labeled as Sensitive Area Response Plans (SARP).



Burns, J. (2019, January 25). Oregon Approves New Air Quality Rules To Allow More Prescribed Fire. Retrieved from

Burns, J., & Miller, M. (2019, June 25). Change To Oregon Smoke Rules Seeing Early Results For Prescribed Burns. Retrieved from  

Berger, C., Fitzgerald, S. A., Leavell, D., & Peterson, J. (2018). Fire FAQs—Air quality impacts from prescribed fire and wildfire: How do they compare? OSU Extension CatalogEM 9203.

Division of Forestry Smoke Management Rules, OAR 629-048-0001 through 629-048-0500

Ford, W. M., Wv, P., Russell, K. R., & Moorman, C. E. (2000). The Role of Fire in Nongame Wildlife Management and Community Restoration: Traditional Uses and New Directions (Workshop Proceedings NE-288; p. 152). Forest Service: Northeastern Research Station.

Johnson, A. S., & Hale, P. E. (2000). The Historical Foundations of Prescribed Burning for Wildlife: A Southeastern Perspect. The Role of Fire in Nongame Wildlife Management and Community Restoration: Traditional Uses and New Directions.


Recent Policy Topics and Developments

April 10, 2020

In the realm of wildfire there are many contentious issues, people do not always agree with the way wildfires are handled, whether that is before they are started, while they are burning, or after they have happened. The three issues I decided to learn more about this week are salvage logging, letting some natural fires burn, and the safety of firefighters. 

The Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013 was tragic and took the lives of 19 firefighters. This fire really brought the dangers that these firefighters are putting themselves in to save cities, towns, property and people. The video really detailed the tragic event that happened as these firefighters were trying to save the town of Yarnell. It made people see the dangers that these firefighters are experiencing trying to save these areas within the wildland urban interface, and it made firefighter safety more of a priority.

Video: America Burning: The Yarnell Hill Tragedy and the Nation’s Wildfire Crisis

The video that focused on the 204 Cow Fire really emphasized the success they had letting a lightening fire burn rather than suppressing it. This naturally caused fire was started in mild weather conditions, in a remote area, putting firefighters in there would have been a risk so they decided to let the fire run its course since the burning conditions were mild. The burn was successful, it improved the forest health and reduced the fuels; it burned over large are with a gentle footprint and a good mix of severity. This fire was a good example for many land managers, due to the success they had and the benefits that came from letting it burn. The Yellowstone Fires of 1988 were a very bad example of letting natural fires burn, so the success of this fire was critical to the perception of this method

Video: Cow Fire: Proactive Fire Management in Action

Salvage logging is something that is controversial, but the video I watched really highlighted the benefits that come from it. Many of the benefits mentioned were focused on economics rather than the ecosystem. Salvage logging provides an economic boost to many of the surrounding small towns that rely on this revenue. The revenue provided from salvage logging can also fund future treatments such as road maintenance, brush disposal, and prescribed burning. Reducing hazards is another benefit of salvage logging, particularly around roads and recreation areas. As far as ecological benefits salvage logging can expose the soil from underneath the ash, making these areas more susceptible to natural regeneration. 

Video: Pioneer Fire Salvage on the Boise National Forest


Evolution of Science and Policy of Forest Wildland Fires

April 2, 2020

The contemporary thinking of the roles of wildfires in ecosystems is much different than it was in 1920, when Chief Greeley wrote the article “Paiute Forestry” or the Fallacy of Light Burning. Historically the main focus of these forested ecosystems was timber production and the revenue that accompanied that timber. The main argument Chief Greeley was focused on was the harmful effects of “light burning”, he believed that this strategy would destroy all of the pine forests that it was used in. Greeley was focused solely of the use of suppression for wildfires, it was the only method of protection that he believed was efficient. This suppression strategy was heavily influenced by the destructive and extreme fire season of 1910, this season drove the Forest Service to adopt these policies strict fire protection. The fear of fire and its destructive capabilities fueled the fire policies of this time and tried to completely remove fire from the landscape.

In today’s world the roles of wildfire are viewed much differently, as these ecosystems are managed for more than just timber production. The management of public lands was shifted by the passage of the Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act (1960), the Wilderness Act (1964), and the National Environmental Policy Act (1970). These acts came with shifting attitudes concerning public land management and wildfire. The Wilderness Prescribed Natural Fire Program, which was implemented in 1972, really altered the perception of wildfire control; under this program some wildfires in wilderness areas were allowed to burn. Allowing some of these fires in wilderness areas to burn was completely different from the historical view of complete suppression that Greeley discussed. This came after people began to realize that the suppression expenditures, that were reaching considerable amounts, could not be economically justified. The environmental era that was occurring in this time frame also led to more awareness of the importance of wildfire in these ecosystems, making it more acceptable to implement on the landscape.

Following this realization that suppression expenditures were not economically feasible, Congress eliminated emergency funding for pre-suppression in 1978. This led to a new protocol for the Forest Service, which required them to conduct a cost-benefit analysis on all future pre-suppression budget requests. Forcing these agencies, such as the Forest Service, to conduct these cost-benefit analyses also allowed them to look at situations where they could potentially leave some of these wildfires to burn and reduce some of these expenditures.

In today’s world fire is viewed as a useful tool to restore these pine forests, where Greeley thought it would be destructive. Although there are still challenges to the use of fire in these landscapes, the perception of it is slowly changing to a positive, useful role, rather than an evil force. Fire is still something any people fear, but with more knowledge and research it is slowly becoming more accepted.