Clean-air agency wants to ban burning in yards

Burning garden leftovers, grass clippings, downed trees and other woody debris would be banned in rural Snohomish County under a proposal by clean-air officials.

The restriction would extend to using fire to clear lots where developers plan to build subdivisions and strip malls.

“We’re doing this to protect public health,” said Alice Collingwood, communications director for the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. “We get these complaints. People are affected by the smoke. There are toxic compounds in this smoke similar to cigarettes. It’s not healthy to breathe.”

Burning has been banned in cities and urban growth areas for decades, but the agency has held back from banning it throughout the county because there weren’t good alternatives for disposing of the debris in rural areas. With green waste pickup offered throughout the county, more transfer stations in rural areas, and more businesses that are willing to chip and compost green waste, the air-quality board has determined that there are enough options in place to allow it to adopt a countywide ban, Collingwood said.

The agency has determined that there are enough alternatives in the Puget Sound region and has proposed banning residential fires in Snohomish, King, Pierce and Kitsap counties.

The residential fire ban wouldn’t kick in until 2010. The ban on burning land cleared for development would start next year. The agency is holding a series of public hearings to gauge public opinion, including one in Arlington in January.

The fire restrictions would not affect farms, which need fire to eliminate insect infestations and other problems, officials said. Also protected are cooking and recreational fires.

In Snohomish County, 165 residential fire permits have been filed this year, said Tom Maloney, fire marshal for Snohomish County.

That number is low because the vast majority of people who use fire to clean their yards don’t get permits, said Merlin Halverson, fire chief of Snohomish County Fire District 5, which covers 72 square miles around Sultan.

Developers have sought land-clearing permits 77 times so far this year, Maloney said. Although some developers use fire to clear land without permits, most appear to apply for a permit first, Halverson said.

The air quality board has received 37 complaints on fires started in the county, Collingwood said. The agency issued citations on 18 of those complaints for burning without a permit or burning trash or other waste.

Rural areas are also getting more populated, with neighbors moving in next to families who have burned for decades. Some have asthma problems. Others just don’t like dealing with smoke.

“We’re just not as rural as we used to be,” Collingwood said.

Fire districts long have struggled to manage the use of fire in rural areas, especially with burning trash, which has been banned statewide for decades.

“What we have done is recognize that — given the state of air quality, the growing communities and problems with the regulations — things are going to change,” Halverson said. “What we’ve tried to do is be proactive.”

The fire district, working with the clean-air board and Snohomish County Solid Waste, has established a green waste drop-off station at the county’s solid waste transfer station in Sultan, he said.

“We’ve tried to provide a reasonable alternative,” Halverson said. “When you say reasonable, it has to be reasonable in the minds of the people who are using it. If we can create opportunities for them to use (the green waste drop-off site), then they will use it. Most people want to do the right thing.”

Firefighters such as Halverson don’t like being called out on nuisance fire calls, so banning fires would make their lives a little easier and waste fewer tax dollars. For Halverson, it comes down to whether the air-quality board will enforce the rules.

“Our anxiety is that when the Puget Sound Air Agency bans burning, they create an enforcement process,” Halverson said. “Right now, there is very little enforcement of the rules that are in place now. What we want to be sure about, when they expand regulations, that they also have enforcement processes in place for that.”

Halverson sits on an advisory panel for the air-quality board. He said he has used that position to remind the agency how important it is to enforce the rules.

Better enforcement would help fire districts cope with what is a bigger problem for them, rural landowners who burn their trash despite the fact that doing so has been illegal since the 1960s.

“I still hear the story that ‘I’ve been here for 40 years’ and that ‘I’ve always had a burn barrel,’” Halverson said.

The ban on clearing for development would come sooner because there are better alternatives in place, said Mario Pedroza, supervising inspector for the clean-air agency.

He said there are many more businesses that will take grinders to a cleared development site, using them to eat through downed trees and other woody material. They then can spread it out on the land as a landscaping tool.

“You’re recycling it,” Pedroza said. The alternative is a smoking fire that a crew needs to watch, he said. “Anytime you have a big land-clearing fire, it will last for days.”

For the building community, burning to clear land is a tool used by only a few because most development occurs inside urban growth boundaries, where fire is already banned.

“As with any other regulation, we hope there is some flexibility for those being regulated to still be able to carry out their business,” said Dan Klusman, communications director for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.

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