Marion County commissioners heard a request at its Feb. 21 meeting from the Fire Chiefs Association asking for a clearer burn-ban resolution.
Six of the 13 fire departments in the county were represented at the meeting to show support for the resolution.
“We are hoping that the language is more clear when it comes to enforcement of the resolution,” said Fred Sheridan, Lehigh fire chief and FCA president. “Right now it’s vague.”
Sheridan said the fire chiefs or county Emergency Management director would like to be given the authority to say “no” if conditions warrant a temporary cessation from a control burn in their area.
Last year, nine fire departments were out at the same time to fight a 1,200 acre fire outside of Florence, he said.
“Control burns were still being called in and guys were getting tired and resources were expended,” Sheridan said. “We need to get a handle on this (so it doesn’t happen again).”
One way to do that would be to give individual fire chiefs the authority to make decisions on whether a controlled burn is feasible.
If it’s county-wide, the chiefs suggested the Emergency Management director could make the determination.
Commissioner Lori Lalouette said she understands the concern.
Sheridan said the fire chiefs would like the resolution to move forward and be reviewed, but in legal format so they can continue on.
Lester Kaiser, Lincolnville fire chief, addressed wind speeds. The four wind speeds of concern include high, very high, extreme and red flag.
“We are not worried about moderate or low, and we will still allow control burns when the winds are high, but if it’s very high, extreme or red flag, it’s no burn,” Kaiser said.
Under the current system, the wind speeds aren’t even local, but come instead from the Newton airport to dispatch.
“Farmers from up north might have winds at 10 mph, but they are being told ‘no’ because winds are 25 mph and they can’t burn,” he said.
The new proposal would be based on a local reading taking everything into consideration, Sheridan said.
“Dispatchers get updates on wind speeds throughout the day, too, and with the new resolution, dispatchers wouldn’t have to decide.”
Commissioner Randy Dallke said wind speeds seem to be one of the biggest problems.
“We are getting close to the season, and so how do you think this will affect guys who have to burn?” he asked.
Sheridan said overall he didn’t believe anyone will see a “tremendous impact.”
Dallke said: “Then there’s always the ones who go out and (burn) anyway—the 3 percent.”
Sheridan said the resolution is written for the 3 percent.
“We don’t want to affect guys that need to burn,” he said, “and those are the guys who don’t give us a problem.”
One thing that came out of committee meetings was that the requirements and needs of the east end of Marion County are much different than the west end when it comes to the types of material burned and the timeframe for doing so.
Sheridan said this would require representation from both ends.
“This is compromise that everyone could agree upon,” he said.
Dallke said the bottom line is that the county is throwing the book and law out there for malicious or intentional fires.
“We are trying to avoid a landowner calling at 6 a.m. and weather is nice right now, but they don’t have a plan to burn until 2 p.m.,” Kaiser said. “By 2 p.m. we have 25 mph winds and 40 mph gusts.”
Sheridan said it comes down to protecting the chiefs and firefighters.
“There was a situation last year when we were exhausted and our trucks were just way, way needing attention, and it kept going,” he said. “And there’s one offender out there that is just throwing the match, and where did he go?”
The language would include criminal prosecution for violators, with the sheriff starting a case, giving it to the county and then it would be up to that county attorney’s office on whether to prosecute, Sheridan said.
“This is not for the 97 percent of landowners who are responsible,” he said.
Dallke said he liked the idea that dispatch could deny a request if all crews in the area are committed to other fires.
Commissioner Dianne Novak suggested the process be allowed to proceed.
In addition, the commissioners will allow the fire chiefs to consult with Robson in developing the resolution and distributing it for final approval.
Until a new policy is in place, the commission will keep the current format in place, which is that the Emergency Management director is contacted, who then contacts the commissioners or issues a proclamation.
In addition to Sheridan and Kaiser, other fire chiefs attending the meeting were Ben Steketee of Hillsboro, Mike Regnier of Marion, Mark Penner of Peabody and Brad Pagenhoff of Lost Springs.