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‘A big win, but a lot more work to do’: Officials review results of stepped-up prescribed burning pilot project west of Bend

(Update: Adding video, comments from agencies)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- In recent weeks, nearly 2,000 acres have been set on fire in Central Oregon forests, to reduce the risk of destructive wildfires. The pilot project to increase prescribed burns west of Bend - and coordinate smoke management - were the focus of a news conference Monday at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency, Forest Service, Oregon Health Authority, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and a Deschutes County commissioner this year's prescribed burn pilot project in west Bend which meant more acres burned in conjunction with several agencies.

"Compared to where we were previous to this land in that area, significant increases and significant progress," Forest Service Regional Forester Jacqueline Buchanan said. "A big win, but a lot more work to do."

Deschutes County Commissioner Phil Chang said this year's intentional burns laid the groundwork for the future. 

"Now that we've done this one year, burned 1,846 acres, we will be able to do that for many years to come," he said.

In previous years, about 200 acres were burned in the spring. And even though this year's pilot project brought a significant increase, Chang said we're still thousand of acres behind where we need to be.

"This year, we agreed - the Forest Service, the local public health authority agreed with air quality regulators - to try burning more, even if there was a risk that it would put more smoke into the city of Bend," he said.

Chang pointed to balancing the risk of a wildfire with the risk of smoke from prescribed burns.

EPA's Regional Administrator Casey Sixkiller said, "Prescribed burn is one of the best tools that we have in our toolbox. The fact of the matter is we need to be doing more, if we want to turn the trends and really try to get ahead of the catastrophic wildfires that we've seen throughout the Pacific Northwest."

 Primary locations for the project included Big Eddy, Welcome Station, Tiddlywinks and Taylor NW.

The goal was to set prescribed burns on more acreage near homes and incorporate ways to protect the public from the impact of the smoke by having agencies provide masks and box fans, as well as coordination and communication efforts. 

Oregon DEQ Director Leah Feldon said, "The next step is to debrief the pilot (project participants) so we can learn into what went well and learn from the things that didn't go according to plan or fell short, and do better next time. One immediate takeaway from the pilot is that this work requires significant collaboration at all levels, and from all of us - federal, state and local."

The Forest Service and agency partners said they're also looking ahead to planning for next year’s prescribed burn pilot project in north Central Washington.

Article Topic Follows: Government-politics

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Kelsey McGee

Kelsey McGee is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Kelsey here.


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