New rules on open burning leave local ranchers a little wary |

New rules on open burning leave local ranchers a little wary

CARBONDALE ” Carbondale fire chief Ron Leach made a direct appeal to ranchers Saturday to help him change the rules for the annual spring ritual of burning dead grass in fields and ditches and wood piles in pastures.

Leach told a handful of ranchers attending a community forum that he needs their support to implement a permit system that he feels is desperately needed in an area where big houses on large lots rapidly replaced most ranches. Without their support, he said, the effort to get other landowners who undertake burns in the spring probably won’t work.

“I’m not going to make it onerous. I’m just asking for your support,” Leach said.

Leach told three longtime ranchers in the area ” Marty Nieslanik, Bill Fales and Max Macdonell ” that it isn’t their spring burning that concerns the fire department. The vast majority of burning is undertaken by people who live on large lots that don’t always take the proper precautions, he said.

The fire department received about 600 advance calls for “open burns” last year. Leach estimated that 550 of them were from people who were burning brush in their yards or large lots in the high country.

The burning of one wood pile along County Road 100 in April started a brush fire that threatened 150 houses, forced the evacuation of hundreds of midvalley residents and severely burned an angler who was overrun by fast-moving flames. The wood pile was burned in a pasture without prior notice to the fire department.

“The practice of open burning is risky, I think it’s fair to say,” Leach said.

In the past, the fire department merely requested that people contact the fire department before burning. Leach wants to beef up that process. He wants people who burn to apply online or in person for an annual permit, which will include the property location and directions to it. In a second step, he wants burners to call the fire department the day before or day of their planned burn. Fire department personnel might warn burners of expected weather conditions, like high winds. In some cases they might even ask burners to hold off a day or two.

Garfield County’s approval of the International Fire Code gives the fire department the power to require the permits. However, open burns for legitimate agricultural operations are exempt, said Eric Gross, who law firm represents the fire district. That includes clearing fields and irrigation systems. Farmers and ranchers still have an obligation to undertake “reasonable care” when burning, he said. Like Leach, he urged the ranchers to voluntarily seek permits, even if they are exempt.

“The safest bet is to call and to get a permit,” Gross said.

Fales and Macdonell were wary of the proposed changes. “It’s tough enough to be in agricultural in this valley,” Macdonell said, citing the development of a subdivision next to the ground he ranches in Coulter Creek. He said he didn’t want the burn permit process to get cumbersome or expensive.

Fales said developers and landowners taking over old grazing lands must be educated about the danger they create by letting natives grasses grow. In the County Road 100 fire, lands that are no longer used for cattle grazing were thick with vegetation that burned rapidly, Fales said. One of the last ranches remaining within the burned area worked as a fire break. The fire couldn’t spread in the grass of the gnawed down pastures, he said.

Fales urged Leach to focus on educating the public about the value of the ranchers burning dead fuels as well as other landowners’ obligation to control vegetation on their land.

One man who identified himself as a annual ditch burner said the proposed permit system made good sense. Others in a small crowd of attendees also sounded like they would welcome the change.

The Carbondale fire district’s board of directors will discuss the proposed changes later this month. Even if the new rules are adopted, Leach made it clear it will depend on voluntary compliance from ranchers and other landowners.

“The fact of the matter is we’re not ready to enforce anything,” Leach said. “The only way I can enforce this is with a carrot rather than a stick.”

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