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Backyard burning – Restrictions are part of a ‘good neighbor’ policy

By Brenna Wiegand

Being a good neighbor excludes backyard burn piles that pollute the air and/or threaten to burn down the house next door.

“We’ve had to shut doors and windows because of the smell and smoke from a neighbor’s burn pile,” a rural Silverton resident said. “We’ve seen burn piles that included plastic bins, a plastic table and rugs.

An illegal fire containing garbage extinguished by fire personnel.

“We know our neighbor burns plastics because we can smell it,” she added. “There are environmental hazards and carcinogens. I suspect people burn their trash, too, including plastic utensils.”

So you call the fire department, right? Of course, but when it comes to enforcement, there is only so much they can do.

“This is where it gets real iffy,” Silverton Fire District Assistant Chief Ed Grambusch said. “Our district doesn’t have any enforcement capabilities for regulation unless it is a hostile fire, meaning that it could spread to a home or an adjacent property or during a red flag warning.” Meaning, when it’s probably too late.

That’s because the Department of Environmental Quality is in charge of enforcing illegal burns. However, though DEQ can enforce the law at any time, during Oregon Department of Forestry’s burn season, typically mid-June through Oct. 15, ODF takes over the enforcement of violations within Silverton Fire District all along the east side of Highway 213/Cascade Highway.

“This does not mean that DEQ cannot enforce the burning laws; it just means that they let ODF take care of it during that time,” Grambusch said.

Backyard burning is currently prohibited through February. When it is allowed, it is against the law to conduct any fire that unreasonably interferes with enjoyment of life or property or creates a public or private nuisance or a hazard to public safety.

DEQ regulations prohibit open burning of the following materials at anytime, anywhere in Oregon: rubber and plastic products, tires, garbage, petroleum and petroleum-treated materials, asphalt or industrial waste or any material that creates dense smoke or noxious odors.

In hopes of preventing such conditions, Silverton Fire District takes a soft-sell approach.

When an illegal burn is discovered, firefighters pay the homeowner a visit for education purposes.

“We try to sell it with goodwill and accurate information and just have a mellow conversation with the offender,” Grambusch said. “We let them know that what they’re burning is sending toxins up into the air, emphasizing the effect it is having on the neighbors and the effect it could have on the violator; to keep them from getting in trouble with DEQ, because, like the IRS, they do have the power to get you.

“We ask them to put it out and they normally do, and they don’t do it again,” he said. “However, if they’re not interested in what we have to say we would just have to leave.” The frustration doesn’t end there.

“If we notice that somebody is a chronic DEQ violator, we fill out a form and send it to DEQ for investigation,” he said. “Quite honestly the investigation seems to consist of sending these people a letter asking them not to do it again.

“From there I don’t know what they do but from what I’ve seen it’s not much.

“We have several different organizations that we have to deal with when it comes to burning, including ODF, DEQ and the Oregon Department of Agriculture,” Grambusch said. “The fire district does not have a say-so in any of it unless it’s a hostile fire or during a red flag. It is very frustrating.

“Granted, DEQ is really busy but at the same time, our district is in two different counties – Clackamas and Marion – and we have to contact a different DEQ person for each of them,” Grambusch said.

“Oregon Department of Forestry will come out no matter what if you are burning when you shouldn’t be in those ODF areas,” Grambusch said. “They have the power to either give you an official warning or fine you for it.

“We have multiple calls at a house on Silverton Road,” Grambusch said. “That house has almost burned down a couple of times and we have been out there literally 20 times and absolutely nothing was done by DEQ.

“It really depends on individuals,” Grambusch said. “That’s why we train so heavily on selling our prohibited burning.”

“Once it starts spreading or gets to a dangerous level then it becomes a hostile fire and we have the say-so,” Grambusch added.

“The minute you have to ask yourself whether it’s a good idea to burn that day, don’t burn,” he said. “You’d be amazed at the fires we have to put out because they got to ten feet within a neighbor’s home.”

All backyard burning is currently prohibited through February. Agricultural burns, such as branches pruned from hazelnut trees, are permitted provided it is a burn day.

To find out if it is a burn day, call 877-982-0011. The only things that are OK to burn are dry lawn clippings, dry branches or needles; no lumber.

The resident needs to be prepared to control the fire and never leave it unattended. Before striking a match, they should have a ready supply of water, a shovel and a plan should the fire escape its bounds.

To report a violation, contact Silverton Fire District, 503-873-5328 and Oregon DEQ, 503-378-8240.

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