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Census numbers halt open burning changes

"Island County residents who burn lawn clippings, branches, untreated wood, and other combustibles in the back yards have a new lucky number as of this week: 919.The number represents how close Island County came to being forced to start a permitting system for every backyard burn pile in its unincorporated lands. Based on population projections that showed the county going over the 50,000 mark, the Northwest Air Pollution Authority - Washington's air quality agency - was ready at the start of the new year to halt unpermitted burning in Island County.But with Census 2000 totals showing the population of the county's unincorporated area at 49,081, Island County Commissioner and NWAPA board member Mac McDowell was easily able to convince agency officials Thursday to hold off on burn rule changes for at least another year.McDowell said the agency will have to do quite a bit of advertising to clarify this fact. The expected burn rules were reported in several local newspapers late last year.I hope NWAPA will make that clear, he said.Under the state's Clean Air Act, all counties with populations exceeding 50,000 in their unincorporated areas must require permits for all outdoor fires, with the exception of camp fires. Counties that do not choose to start a permitting program may simply ban outdoor burning. Island County was scheduled to pick one of these options by Jan. 1, 2001. The decision was delayed until June 30 because the county and NWAPA could not decide who would administer permitting and permit enforcement.McDowell said Island County's position near the apex of this population bubble won't last long. He said he expects the unincorporated population to exceed 50,000 sometime next year. To prepare for this, McDowell negotiated with Skagit County officials to hire a joint permitting official. This new employee, who is expected to be hired by July 1, will take over all commercial burn permitting authority from the state Department of Natural Resources. When the county's population reaches a point at which permits are required for backyard burning, this official will be responsible for those permits as well. The price to the two counties for hiring the new official, providing him or her with a truck and other supplies is expected to be about $60,000 annually.Because one person will not be able to physically inspect every backyard burn, McDowell said the county will probably do its permitting on the honor system. Since the population-based permitting requirements are an unfunded state mandate, he said, the county may cut costs by making permits available at a number of county-owned facilities. People who need a permit would fill out a form then would put a $5 or $10 fee in an envelope to be collected later.The county will establish a phone number by July 1 for people who need to apply for commercial burn permits and who need the burn official to do site inspections. "

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