July 23, 2001 11:00 pm

By The Observer

IMBLER The official agricultural burning season started quietly last week.

Operating under new management rules and what is hoped will be improved weather forecasting, the smoke management center is getting the bugs out of the process, said Ruth Zemke, who keeps records for the center at Imbler.

The smoke management season will run through September. Grass seed growers who choose to burn after harvest must burn during the season. Preregistration is required and the cost to burn is $2 per acre, which pays for management and weather forecasting.

The growers have hired the Oregon Department of Agriculture to forecast weather conditions in the Grande Ronde Valley daily. Weather forecasts come in about 10 a.m.

It looks like its going to work OK for us, Zemke said.

If the forecast looks questionable and there are requests for burning, the center will put up a weather balloon to check the air movements above Imbler. The cost of the balloon is $6 per lift, and the balloon is not sent up each day, Zemke said.

A balloon will be lifted from Island City when there are requests for burning in the southern part of the valley and weather conditions are questionable, she said. No new equipment has been purchased for the Island City location.

Improved weather forecasting is the primary change in the centers management for this season. Another change is the requirement that a grower must light his field no more than 30 minutes after receiving his permit.

Registration for the season is nearly complete, although Zemke said some work needs to be finished. She said she does not yet have an accurate list of the number of acres planned for burning. Last year, 3,700 acres were ignited, and Zemke said she expects even more this year.

According to the operations plan for this year, growers are encouraged to have their fields prepared to burn and rapid-fire condition is preferred.

Union County Commissioner John Howard, the countys liaison to the center, said Monday that he expects to be more heavily involved in monitoring the management this year. Under the management plan, the county commissioners will consult with the Imbler center to end burning on days with poor atmospheric conditions.

The new rules were recommended by a committee that met during the winter to discuss and try to resolve some problems that have occurred during the field burning season.

A committee will continue to meet to look at long-range

plans for year around smoke management.