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Fire chiefs propose new burn regulations

Staff writer

County fire chiefs are calling for a tougher burn resolution to protect both landowners and firefighters.

Six county fire chiefs, including those from Peabody, Lincolnville, Hillsboro, Marion, Lehigh, and Burns, spoke to county commissioners about replacing the burn regulation passed in 2014 with a new one.

Hillsboro fire chief Ben Steketee said the proposed burn resolution is “considerably more restrictive” than the current one. It suggests stricter standards and recommends fines for violations.

A similar burn resolution proposed last year that went to the county attorney to be drafted as a legal document was never seen again, Steketee said, and fire chiefs want to start the ball rolling again with hopes of a better turnout.

“We’ve made a couple of minor modifications,” Steketee said. “We’re anxious to get it going into fire season.”

Already fire departments are being called out for grass fires that have gotten out of control, Steketee said.

It’s not always that landowners don’t know proper precautions, Steketee said. Last week a firefighter-landowner lost control of a fire despite being properly prepared and doing everything as prescribed, he said.

Current procedures call for burning only when wind speed is less than 20 mph, the burn is continually supervised, means to control or extinguish the fire are at hand, the burn does not create a safety hazard such as smoke blowing toward a roadway or airport, the sheriff’s office has been notified, and local authorities have not imposed a burn ban.

The resolution proposed last year called for consulting the rangeland fire index, the burner having 250 gallons of water with a pump capable of 100 psi output, giving fire chiefs authority to declare temporary burn halts in their districts and the county emergency management director authority to temporarily halt burning countywide, and imposing fines and restitution costs for failure to notify the sheriff’s office of a burn or comply with the fire regulation.

Peabody fire chief Mark Penner said fire chiefs want burners to look at more than merely prevailing winds.

“They go by the rangeland fire index, which is updated several times per day,” Penner said.

Wind is one factor in the rangeland fire index, Penner said, but other factors include moisture level and dryness of plant matter.

“Basically, the guys going out and burning need to have the proper equipment,” Penner said. “Most guys are that way. You have some people who are new to living in the country. You can’t just walk out there with a book of matches and walk away.”

He believes the county’s burn regulations should be revisited every year.

“The fact that we got a lot of rain last fall made all this grass just shoot up,” Penner said.

This winter has been dry, setting the stage for high fire hazard, he said.

“My concern is the safety of our firefighters,” Penner said. “There’s more firefighters killed in grass fires than anything else. I think they kind of get complacent, and that’s one part of the trouble. The wind shifts and it’s back on top of you.”

Lincolnville fire chief Lester Kaiser said a committee of firefighters and landowners worked about four months to develop a proposal that would be a workable, acceptable guideline for a new resolution.

“The existing resolution takes nothing into account other than wind speed,” Kaiser said.

“Last year I believe we had nine department out at one time,” Lehigh fire chief Fred Sheridan told commissioners.

Sheridan said the fire chiefs want to get the proposed burn regulation put into legal wording and moving forward.

“We’re getting real close to the season,” commissioner Randy Dallke said. “How do you think this will impact the ones that burn?”

Kaiser said using the rangeland fire index would allow landowners to better plan for their fires, choosing the best day and time to burn.

Sheridan said the proposal would eliminate the situation of a landowner calling dispatch at 6 a.m. to report they will have a controlled burn at 2 p.m.

Sheridan said the needs of the east side of the county and the west side of the county are different.

“I’d want to approve this and start to move forward,” commissioner Dianne Novak said.

Commissioners voted to have the sheriff review the proposal and the county counselor rewrite it into legal terminology.

Last modified Feb. 22, 2017

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