Ag burn or wildfire?

In peak fire season, here’s how to tell the difference

As the Hood River Valley enters peak wildfire season and everyone grows accustomed to the countywide burn ban that started July 1, many residents are on the lookout for fires and are often prompted to call the fire department as soon as they see a column of smoke beginning to wind upward into the clear, blue summer sky.

Jon Gehrig, wildfire prevention coordinator for Hood River County Fire Services, says sharp-eyed citizens are a firefighter’s best friend and that the “first defense against a budding wildfire is often a citizen seeing smoke.”

However, not every fire seen this time of year is a wildfire or an illegal burn. A sizable fire that burned last Saturday near Pine Grove was large enough to send smoke across the valley to Rt. 281, creating haze and prompting a few concerned calls — including one from the Hood River News — to be placed to local fire stations.

The fire, it turned out, was a permitted burn conducted by an orchard owner who was disposing of plant debris.

“Even though we are in a burn ban right now, farmers can get a permit to burn fire blight, a systematic disease that causes fruit trees to look blackened,” Gehrig explained. “Right controlling the blight involves pruning the affected branches and burning them to destroy the pathogen.”

While Gehrig is by no means dissuading people from contacting fire departments if they see some suspicious smoke, he said there are certain things callers should keep in mind when phoning in fires and noted that there are some discernible differences between the characteristics of an agricultural burn and a wildfire:

Geography: Where do you see the smoke? Seeing smoke in or near an orchard is less of a concern than smoke on Mount Hood or Fir Mountain.

Topography: Agricultural burning will typically be on flat ground — if you see smoke in steep terrain, it’s far more likely the fire isn’t supposed to be there.

Type of smoke: Reasonably speaking, smoke looks like smoke. However, there are four defining smoke characteristics: color, volume, velocity and density. Agricultural fires typically have a wetter fuel and smoke will typically be white in color once burning, whereas a wildfire tends to look more brown or tan, and a house or car fire will be black (although keep in mind that all smoke can eventually turn black, depending on the intensity of the fire). Agricultural burning will also yield a more consistent smoke column in terms of density, volume and velocity. The fire is controlled and is in one place, and smoke plumes tend to be steady and are not turbulent. Turbulent or moving smoke is typically something that you should be more concerned with.

Gehrig added that people pay attention to the time of day, as fires are more likely to start in the afternoon as temperatures rise and relative humidity falls, drying out fuels. For this reason, agricultural burning is only allowed during the morning hours.

“We’ll likely continue to see such agricultural burns in the coming weeks and the public should be aware that this will happen from 6 a.m. to 11a.m.,” Gehrig advised.

“We really need citizens to be on the offense for fires, but aware that agricultural fires still occur in the summer,” he added.

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