LA GRANDE — The decision by the Union County Board of Commissioners on Monday, July 19, to enforce a burn ban — prohibiting everything but regulated agricultural burns and pellet or gas barbecues — put some people on edge.
A number of individuals, including Elgin Mayor Risa Hallgarth, contacted Union County officials to express their concerns about allowing agricultural burns when conditions are so dry, hot and smoky.
The worries of Hallgarth and others were alleviated after learning that the only agricultural burning allowed under Union County’s agricultural burning ordinance is highly restricted.
“When I learned how tightly regulated it is, it really eased my concerns about it,” Hallgarth said.
The regulations allow for burning only when a number of very specific conditions are met. For example, the presence of particulate matter in the air must be below a specific parts per million level.
Burns will not be approved by Union County unless the temperature is below 90 degrees, relative humidity is more than 20% and wind speeds are less than 20 miles per hour, said Nick Vora, Union County’s emergency manager.
Vora said Union County Smoke Management officials often do test burns on the day a burn is scheduled to make sure conditions will allow smoke to disperse into the atmosphere. If conditions are found to not be good for smoke dispersal, the field burn will be called off.
Instances in which agricultural burns cause unintentional fires are very rare in Union County because the ordinance rules regulating them are so tightly adhered to, Vora said.
“We typically have very few to no problems with legal field burns causing unintentional fires,” he said.
Issues are also rare because Union County’s fields tend to be on even ground that can be reached with little difficulty.
“Fires are more easily controlled because they are in flat areas,” Vora said.
Burning is done to destroy weeds, insects and microbes, leaving fields free of debris so that crops can soon be grown again. Agricultural burning is often associated with open field burns. However, that is done very rarely in Union County today. Propane flaming is the standard practice instead. This is a process in which tractors pull operating propane burners over a field.
Vora said propane burning is done much more today because it creates far less smoke and it allows famers to save their straw, which they can later sell.
Mike Barry, chief of the Imbler Rural Fire Department, said regulated agriculture burns are important because the practice helps keep Union County’s grass seed industry healthy. He said the industry generates millions of dollars a year for the local economy, and that it would be hurt significantly if regulated agricultural burning was not allowed.
Barry said the regulated agricultural burning program is successful and safe in large part because of the conscientiousness of Union County’s farmers.
“Our farmers are great. They do not want to impact their neighbors,” he said. “Nobody cares more about this community than our farmers.”