Common sense key to safe burning

Posted: Saturday, March 04, 2000

Each spring, Kenai Peninsula residents go out into their yards and gather up the long winter's rubbish. Many turn to burning to dispose of the dead leaves, grass and branches.

In every area there are specific rules governing private burns, but most of it comes down to common sense.

Fire Conditions

For fire condition reports in your area or to obtain a burn permit call:

Homer Dispatch:


Kenai Fire Department:


Nikiski Fire Department:


Seward Fire Department:


State Division of Forestry: 260-4269

U.S. Forest Service

(Chugach National Forest):

(907) 271-2500

In all cases, a permit must be acquired before a fire can be started.

Permits are issued by the fire departments in each city. The Alaska Division of Forestry is the source of permits for the rest of the peninsula. Forestry also gives out permits for what are termed "over-sized" piles, generally those larger than 10 feet high and 10 feet in diameter or per side.

Each permit is accompanied by instructions for burning, and some jurisdictions require site inspections.

Although permits are frequently for more than one day, it is necessary to call the issuing departments immediately before starting a fire. When calling in, burners are told if conditions are unfavorable and burning is not allowed. Fire departments also use the calls to keep track of where smoke can be expected.

"It helps them and it helps us," said Bill Harris, Nikiski's fire chief.

Before the fire is started, a fire break of some sort must surround the burn pile or -- where allowed -- barrel. Most often, this is a circle 10 feet out, stripped down to closely trimmed grass, bare dirt or mineral soil.

Anyone burning must have on hand something to use to extinguish the fire completely, either when the fire dies down or when conditions change. Water and shovels, rakes and other tools to cover the fire should be readily available.

David Taylor, the assistant fire chief in Homer, said a fire is only considered out "when you can take off your shoes and walk over it."

A fire must be supervised at all times.

"Even if they come and get a permit, they're responsible for the fire," Taylor said.

Only wood, brush, leaves and plant matter are allowed to be incinerated. Nothing that will put off black smoke or noxious fumes may be burned. Exam-ples include tires, petroleum-based products and heavy plastics.

It is illegal to burn anything within 25 feet of buildings, beneath power lines or near overhanging branches.

A burn permit can be suspended if the fire department receives complaints about poor stewardship or excess smoke.

"If we get three smoke complaints, we make the person put it out," said Dave Squires, Seward's fire chief.

Permits can be refused to anyone with a history of poor burning, and officers may give someone burning unsafely a ticket and fine.

Peninsula fire chiefs unanimously said the greatest danger is weather.

"The biggest problem is the first part of that burn season, when our fire danger is the highest," said Len Malmquist, fire chief for Central Emergency Services.

In fact, state forestry fire prevention officer Sharon Roesch said the time when most people would like to burn is the worst possible time to start a fire.

"They may need to pile it and wait until we get rain, or until the danger has passed," she said.

"Lots of times, when you're burning, it's not going to go anywhere," said Roesch. "(However,) there's no reason to flirt with danger."

A good way to tell if it would be better not to burn, Roesch said, is to pick up a pile of leaves off the ground. If they crumple to dust in your fist, it's too dry to start a fire.

Wind conditions are another thing to keep in mind.

"Don't light any kind of fire when it's dry and windy or when there's a forecast for wind," she continued. "Imagine the worst case scenario and be prepared for it."

There are alternatives to burning yard waste, though.

Harris said the easiest of them is to haul the rubbish to the dump. He also said it is possible to bury it in the yard.

Malmquist and Squires both recommend using a wood chipper for disposal or mulching the waste.

"It makes it easier," Squires said, "and gives (people) a product they'll pay a lot for at a hardware store."

Taylor summed up the purpose of the burn permit program in a single word: safety.

"The bottom line is, we want safe burning," he said. "Nobody's out there looking to write tickets."

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