Central Oregon Daily▶️ The Great Outdoors: The reason behind pile burning season

▶️ The Great Outdoors: The reason behind pile burning season

▶️ The Great Outdoors: The reason behind pile burning season

▶️The Great Outdoors: The reason behind pile burning season

Don’t be alarmed if you see small columns of smoke rising from the National Forests this time of year. It’s pile burning season.

After a long summer of fighting fires, many firefighters become professional pyro technicians.  

“At first, I like to take a walk around the pile. Determine whether or not there’s a space that is dry and receptive to fire,” said Jarod Bandor, Deschutes National Forest burn boss. “If possible, get on the windward side of it. That’ll help push the fire into the pile and, ultimately, ignite the entire pile.” 

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Fuels specialists light fires in piles of slash left behind from commercial timber harvests. The piles consists of branches, tree trunks and narrow diameter parts of trees that aren’t merchantable.

The piles are made by the contractors who harvest the timber. Depending on the terrain and volume of material, the piles are built by hand or machine and come in several sizes.

“Some of them can be quite large when they are piled by machine. Some of them can be the size of a house,” said Jaimie Olle, Deschutes National Forest public affairs specialist. “Then we have smaller piles where folks are piling by those sticks by hand. Those are going to be a much smaller size, maybe a 5-by-5 area. Our crews come out here and they use drip torches and they light just specifically those piles.” 

Burning conditions are carefully monitored.  Ideal burning conditions include recent rains and snow on the ground both of which extinguish drifting embers. Also good are light winds that disperse the smoke.

“Smoke dispersal is pretty good this time of year. Folks aren’t going to see a large plume of smoke from town. They might see a whiff of it here or there,” Ollie said. “Those piles will continue to smolder for about 24-48 hours, and they’ll remain hot after that for a few days. Our firefighters are out here every day patrolling the area and making sure everything is in check.” 

When conditions are right, hundreds of slash piles are ignited each day. Over the course of the pile burning season, which typically runs from October through the end of the year, an average of 40,000 slash piles are burned annually on the Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District.

When weather conditions and staffing levels permit, one fuels specialist can safely burn 30 acres of slash piles per day. 

“These are great conditions for us,” Bandor said. “We get to light them, come back tomorrow, make sure everything is status quo and continue on with the operation.” 

Extrapolate pile burning activity across all the national forests in Oregon and you begin to get a sense of the size and scope of this annual ritual. 

“We burn across the forest when conditions are right, and this week has lined up for all our districts including Bend-Fort Rock, Crescent and Sisters to ignite piles on their district,” Olle said. “So, while folks are out and about, driving on a highway or something like that, they might see some of those small smoke plumes popping up. But again, smoke dispersal is so good with these small piles, that smoke won’t last or linger too long.” 

A good burn reduces all the material in the pile to ash. Seeds from surrounding trees germinate in the remaining ash. Within five to seven years, there’s almost no evidence of a burn, just young trees in a widely spaced and much more fire-resistant forest.

“An example that comes to mind is the Rosalyn Road fire in 2020. The fire was pushing into a previously treated area. We were able to hook the fire and stop it, just inside of that treatment,” Bandor said.

The Forest Service considers pile burning is part of an ongoing restoration project. 

“It’s another tool in our toolbox. Just like understory burning, this is another way to restore fire to a fire adapted landscape. We are taking down those heavier fuels and removing those ladder fuels that are an issue should a wildfire start,” Olle said.


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