Western Land Managers Face The Challenge: Smoke Now, Or Later?

May 28, 2018

This was aired on NPR's All Things Considered on May 27, 2018

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to hear how parts of the West are preparing for wildfire season. Fire managers have already started to set what are called prescribed burns - fires that are set intentionally in a controlled area. The idea is to clear the forest so that if fires spark up over the summer, there's less fuel to burn.

But the deliberate fires happening now carry their own risks, including the smoke that comes with any large fire. We have a report from two parts of the West, and we start in northwest forest land with Jefferson Public Radio's Liam Moriarty.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE BURNING)

LIAM MORIARTY: I'm standing with Jon Larson on a steep slope in the Applegate Valley of southern Oregon. He's a fire specialist with the Bureau of Land Management overseeing a prescribed fire that's slowly burning through woody debris on the forest floor.

JON LARSON: What we're looking at right here is a really light, cool sort of underburn to reduce the finer fuels

MORIARTY: The fire isn't very hot, but it's plenty smoky, and Larson and I daub our stinging eyes and runny noses. It's important to keep the fire under control. Accidents are rare but can be costly. In 2000, a prescribed burn famously got out of control near Los Alamos, N.M. It burned nearly 80 square miles and destroyed several hundred homes ... Chris Chambers, with the Ashland, Oregon, Fire Department, helps direct a program to restore the forested watershed on the city's doorstep. He says, in a prescribed burn, it's also important to control the smoke.

CHRIS CHAMBERS: 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.

MORIARTY: Chambers also has to deal with air quality regulators, who have final say over whether a burn can proceed based on predicted weather. And they often give a last-minute thumbs down. As a result, Chambers says, there's about a thousand acres he's ready to burn but can't.

CHAMBERS: Were held back by the smoke management program at the state level and also just the fear that we're going to get smoke into town, and it's going to cause issues.

MORIARTY: Aside from making the locals grouchy, smoky air can hurt Ashland's tourism-dependent economy. But Chambers says that as a more natural fire ecology is re-established and as the climate continues to warm, it's a clear choice - endure entire summers of wildfire smoke later or accept what is hopefully less smoke now.

MELISSA SEVIGNY, BYLINE: From member station KNAU in Flagstaff, Ariz., I'm Melissa Sevigny. Stephanie Schiff says that tradeoff, if it works, is worth it. She lives in a small community south of Flagstaff, surrounded by overgrown forests of ponderosa pine.

STEPHANIE SCHIFF: There's a street behind us and then a row of houses on the other side of the street, and then that's forest. So if the forest ever did go crazy, I'm right here (laughter).

SEVIGNY: But Schiff is more affected by smoke than most people. She's had asthma since childhood. She keeps a to-go bag packed with a nebulizer and medicine to help her breathe.

SCHIFF: The first time that I was in a prescribed burn was last fall. And I didn't go out in the morning, and my husband took the dogs, and he came back in the house and said, pack up. We're leaving. There's all kinds of smoke.

SEVIGNY: People with asthma, lung disease or heart conditions can land in the hospital on smoky days. Wildland firefighters, too, are at risk for developing chronic respiratory problems. But Michael Vaughn of the Coconino National Forest says smoke is the price of fixing up the forest.

MICHAEL VAUGHN: We do the best we can, and we're trying to reduce fuels so that these communities can stay safe.

SEVIGNY: Vaughn passed out flyers outside a tiny general store near Flagstaff. A prescribed burn smoldered nearby. He was warning residents to stay indoors if they could.

VAUGHN: If they're usually sensitive, they may have to leave the area for a couple days while the smoke clears.

SEVIGNY: Nobody's happy about that solution, but Vaughn says that this is what it means to live in a forest, where fire happens one way or another.

For NPR News, I'm Melissa Sevigny in Flagstaff.

MORIARTY: And I'm Liam Moriarty in Ashland, Oregon.

Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.