Local fire chiefs hope that three instances of uncontrolled blazes in Fulton County in March will spread the message that open burning by day is a violation.
Flames from brush burned by a farmer March 10 in a field on County Road 4 ate through an acre of land before spreading to a nearby railroad crossing and burning equipment. On March 11, an open burn caused a five-acre field fire on County Road 21 that took the efforts of Gorham Fayette Township, Lyons Royalton, and Morenci, Mich., fire crews to extinguish. That fire is being investigated for cause by the state fire marshal’s office.
An out-of-control fire started by an open burn March 22 in woods on County Road 1-2, south of Swanton, lasted about four hours and took out about eight acres. It was fought by the Swanton, Providence Township, Springfield Township, Monclova Township, and Waterville fire departments and the Division of Forestry. The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office provided a drone to scope out the affected area for hot spots.
“It took a lot of effort to get that one out,” said Swanton Fire Chief Tony Schaffer.
Ohio Revised Code 1503.18 prohibits open burning in the state from March to May, and again from October to November, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. That includes disposing of yard waste, trash, and debris. The ORC also bans open burning within city and village limits and in restricted areas.
Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency forbids at all times the burning of food waste, dead animals, and materials made with rubber, grease, asphalt or anything containing petroleum.
Yet local fire chiefs say illegal open burns remain a problem in the county, and, despite an effort to educate them, some residents insist it’s their right.
“If somebody complains, (a fire) would have to be put out,” Schaffer said. “We’ve had cases of outdoor burning that have spread to unintended areas.”
Open burns can impede visibility on roadways, at railway crossings, and at airports, he said. They can also exacerbate conditions during air pollution crises.
Schaffer said it’s not uncommon for Swanton’s fire department to receive complaints about open burning. Still, he said, residents argue over their right to start open burns, and will defy the state code. In some cases, that can lead to fines or, in the most serious cases, even arrest.
Gorham Fayette Township Fire Department Chief Anthony Bernal said his station has responded to five open burns so far this year. Bernal said many of the offenders don’t understand open burning is prohibited by day, so he makes an effort to spread the rules.
“I kind of work with the people here…try to educate them to let them know about the law,” he said. “Most of them that I talk to don’t realize it. That’s why we try to educate them.”
The fire department distributes pamphlets and places information on its Facebook page and a sign on its building. Still, Bernal said, some people refuse to obey the law. They don’t want to believe it applies to their private property.
Bernal said he has witnessed offenders blatantly reset an open burn while firefighters are still present. He said the department sometimes must use a procedure on-scene that prevents a new fire from being started.
“You’re not going to stop them all,” he said. “It’s their property. You go on someone’s property and try to tell them what to do…you’ve got to try to be civil about it. I want to say it’s education, so they understand now.”
As with any rule, there are exceptions. Recreational fires – such as campfires – are permitted but can be no more than three feet in diameter and two feet or less in height. They must be made at least 25 feet from any structure. Ceremonial fires – or bonfires – can be no larger than five feet in diameter and five feet high, must be at least 50 feet from any structure, and have a burning limit of three hours.
According to the Ohio EPA, those fires must use dry and seasoned wood. They should never be left unattended or still smoldering, and attendees should make sure they’re completely extinguished before leaving them. And no fire should be lit on a windy day.
The agency also said backyard fireplaces, patio hearths, and fire pits and kettles are acceptable but come with conditions. Dry, seasoned wood, natural gas, and other clean burning fuel must be used, and the fire can’t be greater than three feet in diameter or higher than two feet. They also can’t be used for waste disposal.
But despite those rulings local jurisdictions can override the state regulations, and residents are required to obey the local law.
The Wauseon Fire Department has already dealt with about half a dozen complaints of open burns in the city’s rural area. Of those, at least one proved dicey enough to call for assistance from Archbold and Gorham Fayette Township fire crews.
“There were quite a few acres burned up,” said Captain Jason Fisher, the department’s fire prevention and inspection captain. “It was really windy that day, so we where chasing it. It took a couple of hours.”
The number of open burn complaints so far this year equal those from the same time in 2020. Fisher said in March the terrain dries out, the wind picks up, and the result is a recipe for problematic open burns.
“Everybody gets anxious because it’s getting warmer. It’s like spring clean-up. They have stuff to get rid of so they want to get it burned up,” he said. “They don’t understand there are burn laws in place, and they always seem to pick the windiest day to do it.”
Fisher agreed that people can get upset when visited by the fire department over an open burn. He said they’ll object until it’s explained that what they’re doing is illegal.
“Most people, when we first show up, they’re confrontational. When we have to explain, then they understand,” he said. The offender is given an Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) pamphlet to educate them.
Open burns usually die down during April’s wet season, Fisher said.
Residents within the city limits are usually aware that an open burn on their property is illegal. As for anyone with doubts about open burn laws, Fisher suggested they visit the ODNR website or contact their local fire department.
“Ask questions. They can give you the answers. It’s all out there,” he said.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.