Thursday, March 3, 2016

In defense of the DEC’s burn ban

Much to the chagrin of many rural Niagara County residents who read this newspaper, the Department of Environmental Conservation’s annual ban on the open burning of brush goes into effect mere days from now.

From March 16 to May 14 of every year the state does not allow the burning of limbs, sticks and tree mass in towns where such activities are otherwise allowed the rest of the year (that would be communities with populations under 20,000). Over that two month period, the DEC still allows small cooking fires and campfires that are less than 3 feet in height and 4 feet in length, width or diameter.

This law is a necessary tool to prevent wildfires, as the grasses, leaves, and weeds of the springtime are perfect fuels for fires that can and do advance from their intended purpose. While the ground may seem saturated from snow melt and spring rains, the same can’t be said for the plants – they just spent a winter in suspended animation or death and they don’t have any water in them. Those dry plants will ignite from a nearby flame or windblown ashes. The ban’s end date coincides with the greening of that local plant life.

The law, which went into effect in 2009, continues to be a sore subject for local property owners. Brush burning had always been a rite of spring, as homeowners with spacious country lots found themselves cleaning up and disposing of the remnants of winter storms while local farmers were getting rid of trees that fell from woodlots and hedgerows into their fields.  

Despite the DEC’s reasonable expectations and the very real threat of a $500 fine (for the first offense) and larger ones and even jail time for repeat offenses, rural landowners continue to burn during the ban. They certainly can’t cite ignorance to the law, as each year there is an incredible amount of press that the ban receives in local broadcast and print news. What they can cite is their own indifference to it; I guarantee the common sentiment is, “It’s my property. I can do what I want.” 

Local property owners took that cavalier approach to a whole new level last season. Many of them probably assumed that the brutal winter of 2014-2015 was so cold and snowy that the ground was soaked from the thaw and therefore fires wouldn’t happen. But they did…and often. The Niagara County Sheriff’s office told me that during last year’s prohibition period (which was made a week longer because of the dry May weather) there were 58 fire calls across Niagara County for brush and grass fires that went out of control.

Think about the scale of that – 58 times over a two-month period, wildfires threatened and destroyed property (be it land, woods or structures) and wildlife. Fortunately, no human life was taken. Not only were the properties of the burners affected, but so were their neighbor’s lands and buildings.

Luckily, no houses or forests were lost in those five dozen crises, and that’s a testament to our local volunteer firefighters. They abused themselves and their equipment (it’s never good to drive fire trucks across a beat up field or into a forest) to keep these out of control fires at bay. So, while some guys will throw around the property rights argument, they need to understand that their neighbors have a right to safely enjoy their property and the firemen have a right to enjoy their weekends and evenings with their families (when most of these wildfires occur).

So, I ask that my fellow countryfolk use some common sense this spring and respect the law, the environment and your fellow man. Hold off on your brush fires and bon fires until June. A simple fire can quickly become a major situation this time of year. As Smokey Bear says, “only you can prevent wildfires.”       

 From the 07 March 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers

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