Despite rain, cold burn ban until May 15

Local fire officials are reminding people despite the cold, wet spring, a yard cleanup staple, burning, comes with time and materials restrictions.

A 2009 law limited outdoor burning as well as burn barrels for incinerating household refuse, officials said.

Included in the measure banning the burning of household trash in open outdoor receptacles, the law also restricted the dates residents can burn yard debris like brush with a burning ban from March to May each year.

The burn ban ends May 15 and Washington County Fire Coordinator Ray Rathbun said that is when residents can begin burning, but he emphasized only certain things.

“No leaves, paper, cardboard or (grass clippings), you can’t just pile leaves and burn them,” Rathbun said.

Rathbun said he recommended composting or otherwise disposing of leaves and lawn trimmings, burning them is now against the law.

Fires should only include brush and trees or limbs up to 8-foot sections no more than six inches in diameter. Those fires should be started the old fashioned way, Rathbun said, with a pile of dry tinder rather than any flammable liquids like gas or oil and no news or other kinds of paper – that should be recycled.

“You can’t burn leaves and yard waste now it should be mulched or composted and never any newsprint, cardboard; no grass, grass clippings and there always has to be somebody in attendance,” Rathbun said.

Brian Brooks, Deputy Chief of Special Operations of the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company, said the fire company discourages outdoor burning at any time, regardless of the burn ban. Open burning, he said, is the single largest cause of wildfires in the state. Brooks said he wanted to remind everyone burning leaves is prohibited at any time, not just during the burn ban. The Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company encourages residents to compost leaves, he said. If you are conducting a controlled burn of brush after May 15, notify Washington County Fire Control at 747- 3325, tell them your name and address. If you can, call any officer of the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company. The Fire Chief is Bryan Brooks at 796-8035.  The fire company does not conduct open burning for donations. 

Officials with the Department of Environmental Conservation said the move should help reduce the number of wildfires resulting from burns that get out of control.

Despite a lofty snowfall total and a cool, wet spring, local fire officials are cautioning against any outdoor burning of yard debris because the top layer of vegetation from last year is still extremely dry and prone to burning out of control; also it’s now illegal.

“The only things you’re allowed to have now are campfires,” Penrhyn Engine and Hose Chief Milt Dunbar said.

Although conditions this year have substantially reduced the number of local call outs for brush and grass fires, Dunbar said the possibility still exists until the countryside begins to green up as it finally has begun to do. “It’s doing very well right now,” he said. 

Past seasons have been busy ones for area fire fighters as lesser snow totals uncovered undergrowth and allowed residents to begin thinking about yard clean up earlier than this year.

“This is typically just not the time of year to be doing that; wait until things green up,” Dunbar said.

Despite wet ground the fire danger remains high for what are known as “top fires.”

Field grasses and leaves from the fall have been drying over the winter and now represent tinder that needs little encouragement to burn and can often outrace firefighters when driven by wind.

Dunbar said the season is starting a late this year thanks to the snowfall when the area seemingly received a storm each week; some, major snowfalls. 

Someone suspecting a brush fire should investigate and not just phone in an emergency, but if they have no way to tell, Dunbar said, they would rather get the call. Rathbun said when fires are permitted the best way to avoid an accidental call out for the local fire department is to call ahead and let your local fire chief know you plan to burn.

Later in the year, when burning is permitted, part of keeping emergency personnel from coming out to a controlled burn is keeping local authorities informed of what one plans to do, he said.

Rathbun said no permits are needed for a brush fire for cleanup purposes, but he strongly recommended calling local fire officials to inform them of a decision to have a fire. Another recommended strategy is burning several small piles one at a time, versus burning one big one. “Then it’s just easier to control; you should have a hose or something out there anyway,” he said.

“Encon and the forest rangers are the ones to enforce the law and they’re the ones to call if you have questions on that kind of thing,” Rathbun said. 

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