Forest Grove Fire & Rescue responded to reports of an out-of-control burn pile in Gales Creek on May 5. It turned out to be a false alarm. Photo: Chas Hundley

SALEM - The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) issued a warning that the window to safely burn debris has closed until conditions improve late in the year. 

According to an ODF press release, “unseasonably warm and dry conditions” have led to more than 70 fires in the department’s protected areas so far in May, catching people off guard who were not expecting fires this early in the year, and prompting county-wide burn bans in various regions throughout the state, including a short ban in Washington County last week and into the weekend.

While a formal fire season has yet to be declared on ODF-protected lands, 126 fires have torched close to 1,000 acres this year, more than half of them this May. 

May, declared Wildfire Awareness Month by Governor Kate Brown, is an ideal time to prepare your home for the impending wildfire season, ODF says, but cautions that alternatives to burning excess debris—such as chipping or recycling—should be considered instead of burning.

ODF is joined by Keep Oregon Green—a wildfire prevention advocacy organization— and the Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal in these warnings. 

“The window to burn safely has closed,” says ODF Fire Prevention Coordinator Tom Fields. “If chipping or recycling is not an option, then it’s best to hold off until after fire season next fall.” 

According to Fields, delaying until it’s safe to burn will give debris time to cure and burn efficiently when it’s safe to do so. 

Opting to skip burning this spring will also prevent a common cause of fires: Unintentionally allowing a burn pile to smolder, retaining heat invisibly until it bursts back to life in warmer, windy conditions in the summer heat. 

If you must burn, fire officials say that following a list of safe burning practices can help prevent escaped burn piles. 

-- Call before you burn - Burning regulations are not the same in all areas and can vary with the weather and fuel conditions. If you’re planning to burn, check with your local Oregon Department of Forestry district, fire protective association or air protection authority to learn if there are any current burning restrictions or regulations, and whether a permit is required.

(Banks Fire District: 503-324-6262; Forest Grove Fire & Rescue: 503-992-3240; ODF Forest Grove District: 503-357-2191)

-- Know the weather forecast - Never burn on dry or windy days. These conditions make it easy for open burning to spread out of control.

-- Clear a 10-foot radius around your pile - also make sure there are no tree branches or power lines above.

-- Keep your burn pile small - A large burn may cast hot embers long distances. Small piles, 4x4 feet in dimension, are recommended. Add debris in small amounts as existing material is consumed.

-- Always have water and fire tools on site - When burning, have a charged water hose, bucket of water, and shovel and dirt nearby to extinguish the fire. Drown the pile with water, stir the coals, and drown again, repeating until the fire is DEAD out.

-- Stay with the fire until it is completely out - Monitoring a debris burn continually from start to finish until dead out is required by state law, to ensure that any escaped sparks or embers can be extinguished quickly. Go back and recheck old burn piles, as they can retain heat for several weeks and rekindle when the weather warms and wind begins to blow.

-- NEVER use gasoline or other accelerants (flammable or combustible liquids) to start or increase your open fire. Every year, 55-60 percent of all burns treated at the Oregon Burn Center in Portland are the result of backyard debris burning.

-- Burn ONLY yard debris - State regulations prohibit the open burning of any material that creates dense smoke or noxious odors.

-- Escaped debris burns are costly – State law requires the proper clearing, building, attending and extinguishing of open fires any time of year. Citations can amount to as much as $2,000 and, if your debris burn spreads out of control, you will be responsible for the cost of fire suppression and very likely the damage to neighboring properties. This can range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars.

More tips on wildfire prevention, including campfire safety, motorized equipment use, and fire-resistant landscaping can be found on the Keep Oregon Green site, www.keeporegongreen.org.