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Don't get burned by new fire regulations

Fire Warden Fred Wefer views his duties as educational rather than punitive, and part of his job is to teach Island County residents about the new laws governing outdoor burning.

Wefer, who is fire warden for both Island and Skagit counties, said that he isn’t out to slap fines on folks whose burn piles are too big, though he would like them to be aware that things have changed. To wit, those old 10-by-10 foot piles, once permissible during summer seasons in Island County, are now against the law.

Now, a non-permitted outdoor burn cannot exceed 4-feet high by 4-feet across. Of course, that regulation about not burning plastic or dead animals still stands.

“That’s one of the biggest things,” Wefer said. “We need to educate people about the fact that it isn’t ten-by-ten anymore,” for any non-permitted debris burn.

“That has actually been a law for a year and a half,” Wefer added, saying that Island County finally put the ordinance on the books last October.

It is because of the newness of the law that Wefer considers his role as fire warden to be largely educational. He would rather bring citizens into compliance through knowledge rather than fines.

“I’m not going to be the gestapo out there with a tape measure measuring the pile,” Wefer said, though he added he would like to see everyone eventually conform to the law.

Another change to the county’s burning ordinance is that writing burning permits is now the sole duty of the fire warden, where previously such authority resided with the Dept. of Natural Resources. This means that Wefer spends most of his days driving through two counties issuing permits, which Wefer said are typically delivered within two days of the request.

The flip side of this responsibility is answering complaints and citing violations. Wefer said that he typically answers one or two complaints a day, most by neighbors who feel they are getting smoked out by an over-ambitious burner.

“A lot of people don’t know that if you’re burning, you can’t affect neighbors with the smoke,” Wefer said.

In most instances, Wefer said that answering a complaint entails nothing more than informing the burner that they need to exercise some consideration for those around them who also enjoy the benefits of oxygen. Most burning people are more than happy to comply.

“Any time you’re burning it’s up to you to be responsible for the smoke and fly ash,” Wefer said. “You need to be aware of atmospheric conditions and wind conditions when you burn.”

There are those instances where Wefer issues a citation, and the rules governing these cases are also new.

Before the ordinance was changed in December, the fire warden had the authority to assess fines for illegal burning at his discretion, from an amount of $1 up to $250. However, the words “up to” presented a problem, in that allowing the citing officer to choose the levy amount was inconsistent with state law.

After some wrangling over what the set fine amounts would be, the Island County commissioners in December opted to break violations into two separate classes: Class 2 and Class 4 civil infractions, and to fix the fine amounts at $120 and $20, respectively.

Class 4 infractions cover residential, recreational and storm/flood fires.

Onto both fines would be tacked the cost of the appropriate permit.

Wefer said that once they’ve been informed of the laws governing outdoor burns, the majority of islanders cease breaking the law.

“You usually get a lot more compliance if they understand what’s going on. Most people are pretty good about it,” Wefer said, though he added that “the problem children are out there.”

For the truly ornery recidivist who torches with a vengeance, Wefer said that he won’t hesitate to call in Northwest Air Pollution Authority, an agency sanctioned to levy fines of up to $5,000. Wefer is in constant contact with NWAPA, which is based in Mount Vernon.

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