New laws govern burning

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

Wefer, who is the fire warden for Island and Skagit counties, said he isn’t out to slap fines on people whose burn piles are too big, though he wants 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. In addition, 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 10-by-10 anymore.”

Though the larger burns have been illegal for a year-and-a-half, Island County finally put an 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 than fine them.

“I’m not going to be the Gestapo out there with a tape measure measuring the pile,” Wefer said.

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

The flip side of his job is answering complaints and citing violators. Wefer said he typically answers one or two complaints a day, most from 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 answering a complaint entails nothing more than informing the burners that they need to exercise some consideration for those around them. Most people comply.

There are those instances when 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 as low as $1 and up to $250 for illegal burning. The amount was at his discretion. However, the words “up to” presented the problem 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 Board of Commissioners opted in December 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 cleanup fires. The cost of the permit is added to both citations.

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,” he said. “Most people are pretty good about it.”

For the truly ornery recidivist who torches with a vengeance, Wefer said he will not hesitate to call in the Northwest Air Pollution Authority, an agency sanctioned to levy fines ofup to $5,000. Wefer is in regular contact with NWAPA, which is based in Mount Vernon.

Burn facts to remember
Fire Marshal Fred Wefer will distribute pamphlets with up-to-date information on outdoor burn regulations to fire departments and grocery stores on Whidbey Island. Here are some of the more important facts contained in the brochure:
  • Permit requests are received and processed only by the fire marshal, who can be reached at 321-4400 on South Whidbey.

  • It is illegal to burn garbage, rubber, plastic, asphalt, dead animals, petroleum product or paints.

  • You are not allowed to let smoke or ash create a nuisance to people residing within the vicinity of your burn.

  • Debris-disposal fires without a permit must be no larger than 4 feet across and cannot burn within 50 feet of any structure or standing timber.

  • Residential debris fires require a permit ($20) if they are larger than 4 feet but do not exceed 25 feet across or high and cannot burn within 50 feet of any structure or timber.

  • All fires must be attended at all times by a person age 16 or older capable of putting the fire out and with easy access to materials for containing the fire, such as water and a shovel or rake.

  • Burning is not permitted in winds exceeding 7 to 10 mph.

  • All burning besides commercial debris fires must take place during daylight hours only. Fire may be started one half-hour before sun-up and must be out one half-hour after sundown.

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