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What's with the smoke and the slash burning?

May contain: nature, outdoors, mountain, and water
Piles of smoking slash piles burning among snow dusted forest.

What are those burning piles all about?

Capt. Rich Saalsaa, Fire & Life Safety Officer
Philomath Fire & Rescue

This time of year, one can generally see multiple plumes of smoke dotted in and around the Philomath Fire District, and beyond.  Sometimes, these fire burn late into the night, and a rather scary looking glow can appear on the side of a mountain – seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  After the fire season is officially declared closed for the year, people who have been building piles of leftover branches, brush, grass, tree stumps, and other vegetation begin burning in what’s locally known as ‘backyard burning.’  Technically, these piles are called yard or ranch debris (Includes wood, needle or leaf materials from trees, shrubs or plants from the real property immediately adjacent to a dwelling of not more than four family living units) and is not to be confused with ‘slash’ burning (Includes forest debris or woody vegetation to be burned that is related to the management of forestland used for growing and harvesting timber, not otherwise regulated by the Department of Forestry).  These back yard burns are not required at this time to have a permit, but come January 1st, 2021, burning permits will be issued by Philomath Fire & Rescue.  When slash piles are built within Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) protection boundaries, those slash piles must be permitted by ODF.  Outdoor burning is only permitted from end of fire season (generally 1 October) through 15 December and 1 March through 15 June (or the start of fire season, whichever happens first).  In addition, during these ‘burn days’, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issues the start and stop times that these burns can take place – some days, they cannot take place at all (inversion days, high wind and low humidity days, etc.).  The times are updated every day during burn season and can be check from our website at philomatfire.com or through our burn advisory line at 541-929-5903.  The exception here are large slash piles regulated by ODF – these may be permitted to burn continuously overnight, and even for several days.  There may be more than one pile going at a time.

If you live within the City of Philomath or are within three miles of the City Limits (or six miles from Corvallis City Limits), then you must get a permit from the DEQ for any burning other than yard waste (burn barrel).  You will still be required to get a permit from Philomath Fire for all burning in this area.

These materials can never be open burned:

  • Garbage
  • Plastic
  • Asbestos
  • Wire insulation
  • Automobile parts
  • Asphalt
  • Petroleum treated materials
  • Painted wood and wood treated with creosote or pentachlorophenol
  • Rubber products including tires
  • Animal remains
  • Animal or vegetable matter resulting from the handling, preparation, cooking or service of food
  • Any other material that emits dense smoke or noxious odors

Another type of burning that can occur is Agricultural burning.  Agricultural burning is limited to agricultural waste, such as material generated by an agricultural operation that uses land primarily for the purpose of obtaining a profit in money by raising, harvesting, and selling crops or raising and selling animals.  Agricultural burning can include the burning of residue after harvest of a grass seed or cereal grain crop or clearing of agricultural land.  This type of burning is only regulated by the air quality reports generated by the Department of Environmental Quality.  Please note that agricultural burning does not include blackberry bush cuttings, etc. – that is considered yard or ranch debris and is subject to the burn season, unless you are growing blackberries for commercial harvest.

In all the above cases:

  • The property owner is responsible for any fire, smoke or odors created from open burning and for any damage that results from that fire.
  • A responsible person must constantly attend any open burning.
  • This person must be capable of and have the equipment to extinguish the fire.
  • This person must also completely extinguish a fire before leaving it.
  • The fire cannot create a nuisance or a hazard to public safety.

Hazards to public safety (fire appears to be spreading out of control or lighting other fires) is handled by calling 9-1-1 and the fire department will respond.  Smoke complaints are handled by the Department of Environmental Quality.  Their hotline is 1-888-997-7888. Smoke from the burning of the materials listed below are especially hazardous to people's health and the environment. If you have a complaint about smoke, please call the DEQ hotline (which is what we would do if we respond).  Note that if we have to respond to extinguish a fire, the owner may be subject to receiving a bill if we have to respond more than once to a given property, per Department policy.

Some tips for burning your debris includes:

  • cover the pile during wet weather so that there is less smoke when attempting to burn (wet wood produces more smoke)
  • watch the way the smoke lays down – start off with a small pile to see if your smoke blows towards people’s houses (low pressure will keep the smoke down to the ground)
  • smaller piles are easier to manage – 3 ft diameter and 3 ft high is a good sized pile
  • do NOT use accelerants (diesel fuel, gas/diesel mix, etc.) – these produce toxic smoke
  • only ignite the number of piles that can easily be controlled – space them out and watch for flying embers, do not ignite in high wind or heat conditions

Thank you for your commitment to fire and life safety.  If you have any questions about burning activities, please contact our office at 541-360-0030 during business hours.