News

Illegal fires ignite concern

By Cali Bagby

Finally the sky is blue, birds sing in blossoming trees, islanders trade pants for shorts and don sunglasses. It’s also the time of year when the risk of fire increases, and in about a month open burning season will be over.

Although he has yet to write a citation this year for illegal burnings,  San Juan County Deputy Fire Marshal Paul Turner is growing concerned that it’s still occurring, but that islanders may not report the fires. He has two theories – either they are not aware that they can contact Turner on the weekend or they fear repercussion from the people starting the fires.

“We are available 24 hours a day seven days a week. If someone is burning illegally call 911,” Turner said. “And the names of those who report are not disclosed.”

Last year, Turner responded to cases countywide of residents burning without a permit and in some instances, setting fire to garbage, fiberglass items, and paper products.

On Lopez, one resident illegally lit a 42-foot grounded boat on fire. The individual responsible was given a ticket for burning unauthorized materials, plus a fine of around $2,900 — the cost of suppression, which included three engines and about 16 personnel sent to put out the blaze.

“You can burn only natural vegetation,” Turner said. “Milled lumber — like the boat, asphalt and a whole other list of things are unauthorized materials.”

Basically, if it doesn’t grow in the ground, it can’t be burned. It’s a rule that Turner strictly enforces.

According to the Washington Clean Air Act of 1970, only natural vegetation may be burned. The following materials are not allowed: garbage, dead animals, petroleum products, paints, plastics, paper (other than what is necessary to start a fire), cardboard, treated wood, construction/demolition debris, metal, or any substance that releases toxic emissions, dense smoke, or obnoxious odors when burned.

The maximum fine for burning without a permit is $250 and the maximum fine for burning unapproved materials is $500. Both require a court appearance.

Turner recalled another fire last year where a man was burning fiberglass, car seats and other garbage – basically “he was burning everything under the kitchen sink.”

As long as dump fees remain high, Turner said people will revolt by either hauling trash to the mainland, burying it in a deep hole or lighting a match and watching it burn.

What and when you can burn

Unless there is a burn ban, the fire marshal allows recreational fires of two feet in diameter during any time of the year.

Barbecues and fireplaces are not affected by the end of the burn permit season.

The open burning season is Oct. 1 through June 30. For residential burn piles, which are 10 by 10 feet or less, a $15 permit is required. Anyone living within an Urban Growth Area cannot have a residential burn pile.

Commercial permits are needed for larger burns (40 by 40 feet); they are $225 and valid for 30 days. Heavy equipment – such as an excavator – is required to be on scene.

And how dangerous can fires be – illegal or not? Turner said, garbage can release harmful chemicals into the air. As far as the danger of the fire spreading, he said it depends; a five-foot pile of leaves could easily get out of control if a water source or shovel is not available for suppression.

“Fire is dangerous, but it can be managed,” he said. “Fire is a concern for us every day. That is one reason why we shut off that burning in June.”

Permits can be obtained online at www.sjcfiremarshal.org or at any of the island fire departments.

Finally the sky is blue, birds sing in blossoming trees, islanders trade pants for shorts and don sunglasses. It’s also the time of year when the risk of fire increases, and in about a month open burning season will be over.

Although he has yet to write a citation this year for illegal burnings,  San Juan County Deputy Fire Marshal Paul Turner is growing concerned that it’s still occurring, but that islanders may not report the fires. He has two theories – either they are not aware that they can contact Turner on the weekend or they fear repercussion from the people starting the fires.

“We are available 24 hours a day seven days a week. If someone is burning illegally call 911,” Turner said. “And the names of those who report are not disclosed.”

Last year, Turner responded to cases countywide of residents burning without a permit and in some instances, setting fire to garbage, fiberglass items, and paper products.

On Lopez, one resident illegally lit a 42-foot grounded boat on fire. The individual responsible was given a ticket for burning unauthorized materials, plus a fine of around $2,900 — the cost of suppression, which included three engines and about 16 personnel sent to put out the blaze.

“You can burn only natural vegetation,” Turner said. “Milled lumber — like the boat, asphalt and a whole other list of things are unauthorized materials.”

Basically, if it doesn’t grow in the ground, it can’t be burned. It’s a rule that Turner strictly enforces.

According to the Washington Clean Air Act of 1970, only natural vegetation may be burned. The following materials are not allowed: garbage, dead animals, petroleum products, paints, plastics, paper (other than what is necessary to start a fire), cardboard, treated wood, construction/demolition debris, metal, or any substance that releases toxic emissions, dense smoke, or obnoxious odors when burned.

The maximum fine for burning without a permit is $250 and the maximum fine for burning unapproved materials is $500. Both require a court appearance.

Turner recalled another fire last year where a man was burning fiberglass, car seats and other garbage – basically “he was burning everything under the kitchen sink.”

As long as dump fees remain high, Turner said people will revolt by either hauling trash to the mainland, burying it in a deep hole or lighting a match and watching it burn.

What and when you can burn

Unless there is a burn ban, the fire marshal allows recreational fires of two feet in diameter during any time of the year.

Barbecues and fireplaces are not affected by the end of the burn permit season.

The open burning season is Oct. 1 through June 30. For residential burn piles, which are 10 by 10 feet or less, a $15 permit is required. Anyone living within an Urban Growth Area cannot have a residential burn pile.

Commercial permits are needed for larger burns (40 by 40 feet); they are $225 and valid for 30 days. Heavy equipment – such as an excavator – is required to be on scene.

And how dangerous can fires be – illegal or not? Turner said, garbage can release harmful chemicals into the air. As far as the danger of the fire spreading, he said it depends; a five-foot pile of leaves could easily get out of control if a water source or shovel is not available for suppression.

“Fire is dangerous, but it can be managed,” he said. “Fire is a concern for us every day. That is one reason why we shut off that burning in June.”

Permits can be obtained online at www.sjcfiremarshal.org or at any of the island fire departments.

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.

Read the latest Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Sep 10 edition online now. Browse the archives.