November 01, 2001 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Smoke swirls through the Grande Ronde Valley at all seasons of the year, including winter, when the blue haze comes from wood stoves. But complaints and questions about smoke are taken countywide only during the summer season of agriculture burns.

A Union County smoke management committee hopes to expand the smoke management information to all four seasons through a call-in center that should be up and running within the next several months.

The county will install the equipment in the Joseph Annex, where the county commissioners have their offices. Commissioner John Howard told the smoke management committee this week he is looking for funding to pay the $1,500 needed to install the automated system.

Information on weather and burning conditions in various parts of the county would be updated daily, and callers could learn whether burning conditions were good, fair or poor. Complaints about smoke would also be taken through the system.

The proposed call-in center is only one of several new programs resulting from the ongoing work of the committee that was created last year to try to improve smoke conditions in the valley.

Wheat growers are receiving grants that will allow them to move toward direct seeding which reduces the need for wheat stubble burning.

Committee member Dale Case said the intent is to impact 3,000 acres per year. The grant program covers two years.

Although direct seeding may reduce wheat yield somewhat, Case said that costs could be reduced.

Diesel fuel will be less; it will take less equipment to maintain, he said.

Ideas to improve techniques have been joined by ideas to improve health information, and a health subcommittee is developing an information paper explaining how to visually calculate when smoke may be heavier than is healthy.

Subcommittee members, led by nurse practitioner Marguerite Pike and Chris Kelly of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have been talking with youth sports coaches about recognizing when smoke could affect children.

The coaches have become more aware of many health issues, Kelly said.

Fine-tuning of the summer management program continues. Ruth Zemke of the Smoke Management Center in Imbler said communications from people in Cove about air conditions, wind direction and other factors helped the center make better decisions about burning.

We could verify what was going on and change the burning practice when we needed, Zemke said.

As a result of weather forecasting from the state Department of Agriculture and information from observers, the center discovered that the best burning time was later in the day. We get the best smoke dispersal from 3 to 6 p.m., she said.

Zemke said the grass seed and wheat growers cooperated well.

When we asked, they shut down, she said.

Larry Calkins of the state Department of Environmental Qualitys air quality section told the committee that he is encouraged. Weve made some inroads.

Im glad youre getting farmer cooperation, he said. Thats really great.