MADRAS- Each morning from late July through October, Oregon State University research assistant Claudia Campbell launched a helium-filled weather balloon or two into the sky. She then followed it to see what direction it traveled, and how fast.

Anxiously awaiting her report were the grass seed growers of Jefferson County.

The Pilot Balloon project (affectionately known as Piball) at OSU's Central Oregon Agricultural Research Center has added an important dimension to smoke management in Jefferson County for the past three years.

After Campbell would release each helium-filled balloon - which was about two feet in diameter - she would record its flight behavior and translate her data into wind speed and direction. Then she faxed the information to the Jefferson County Smoke Management smoke coordinator, who in turn integrated it into Oregon Department of Agriculture's daily burn forecast for Jefferson County grass seed growers.

Temperature, relative humidity, surface wind direction and speed and information from plane flyovers also went into the forecast.

"Basically, the balloon launch and observation from (the OSU center) is a refinement of what meteorologists predict about where smoke will go," explained Campbell. "The decision on whether to let grass seed growers burn that day is dependent on the information."

In 2001, there were 15 days out of the approximately 100-day long field-burning season where the OSU-launched balloon gave additional insights into the winds aloft and their speed, changing the outcome of a smoke management forecast.

On days when planes are grounded due to bad flying conditions, OSU's Piball balloon is the sole way that the county can determine whether or not to burn.

When winds, inversions or mixing patterns become such that smoke will travel to local communities including Madras, Redmond and Bend, then a "no-burn" day is announced.

"The balloon helped determine the actual way the winds aloft were behaving, not just the theoretical conditions provided by a weather forecast," said Campbell.

Jefferson County grass seed growers have led the way in managing their own smoke, said Campbell, a long time resident in Jefferson County.

"The growers want to be able to preserve their grass seed industry, so they are proactive about smoke management," she said. "Growers pay a burning fee that is assessed by how many acres of grass seed they burn."

The local grass seed growers started the smoke management program themselves, as a voluntary effort in 1981. Safe burn days became mandatory in 1988.

The Piball project is managed by Marvin Butler, a crop scientist with the Jefferson County office of the OSU Extension Service.

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Claudia Campbell, 541-475-7107