With temperatures nearing or surpassing record levels and air quality warnings in effect, burn bans are commonplace.
But there are still sometimes long plumes of smoke headed into the skies over Salem begging the question: Why?
“It’s a very visible activity, you can actively see it,” said farmer Kathy Hadley of the field burns that cause those smoke towers despite high heat and low air quality.
“Fire is nature’s way of sterilizing stuff and controlling pests,” Hadley said. “Native Americans used fire to control stuff. It’s an effective, organic process.”
The process is an alternative, in some cases, to tilling fields which Hadley said is more harmful in terms of air quality because the dust particles tilling creates are larger than the particles from a burn. The process can also cause soil erosion, which burning avoids. Hadley farms grass seed, oats and canola, and raises beef cattle.
Oregon has allowed field burning since 1948, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Used to control diseases in grass seeds, over 250,000 acres were burned each year through the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1991, House Bill 3343 limited regular limitation acres burned per year to 40,000 and 25,000 acres for identified species and steep terrain.
Burning grass seed crops ended in western Oregon in 2009 with Senate Bill 528, which limited field burning in the north Willamette Valley to 15,000 acres.
“Burning right now is pretty limited in the valley,” said Hadley whose family farm is located in Silverton Falls, near Drake’s Crossing. “It’s only allowed for certain crops or on certain terrain but I do understand, given the events of Labor Day a few years ago, the sensitivity of seeing the smoke.”
In 2020, five fires – Archie Creek, Beachie, Holiday Farm, Lionshead and Riverside – erupted over Labor Day weekend and eventually burned more than one million acres in the state, according to the Oregon Forest Resources Institute.
“But there are strict rules in place for field burning and there’s years of experience with the people who are doing the burning,” Hadley said.
The cycle of farming, she said, causes burning to happen during the summer months sometimes.
“It’s the nature of the process,” Hadley said. “You can’t just leave the straw because it will smother the crops. And to burn it when it’s wet or cold, it will create more smoke.”
And that smoke, Hadley said, is meant to burn in a specific way which, ironically, makes people aware the burning is even happening.
“We burn efficiently in hot columns that carry the smoke into the higher atmosphere,” she said of the tall plumes seen for, sometimes, miles. “It has less impact there.”
People can satisfy their curiosity or settle their nerves when they see those tall smoke plumes by signing up for field burning notifications. The Oregon Department of Agriculture will send test fire notices and Silverton Hills field burning notices from July through October. Notification sign up is free.
“When they sign up and they do see something, like the smoke,” Hadley said, “they’ll know it’s probably nothing.”
Contact reporter Caitlyn May at [email protected].
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Caitlyn May served as a journalist for nearly a decade in Nevada and in Linn Lane counties in Oregon with a focus on rural stories and long-form journalism. A graduate of both Oregon State University and the University of Oregon, she currently serves as an elementary school teacher but returns to journalism now and then, remaining a dedicated supporter of the Fourth Estate.