After the first hint of autumn’s cooler temperatures, it doesn’t take long before a land- owner’s thoughts turn to burning. Nothing compares to the fragrance of an outdoor fire — or the satisfaction of making ashes out of piles of yard debris.
Seasoned burners know that following basic safety steps before lighting the fire is one of their first responsibilities, and in years past, notifying the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) was another. This year, however, going online or calling the GFC to get the backyard debris burn documented is no longer required.
The change went into effect on July 1, after the Georgia legislature approved Senate Bill 119, which revised Georgia code section 12-6-90. Specifically, it eliminates the need to notify the GFC when a person, firm, corporation or association intends to burn hand-piled vegetation/yard debris. Important fire prevention precautions for burners, however, were added.
Many Georgians may just now be learning of this change. For 54 mostly north Georgia counties, a burn ban was in effect from May 1–September 30. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) mandates the restrictions annually to protect air quality from emissions that may increase ground-level ozone.
What has not changed is the requirement to get a permit for land-clearing burns for residential or commercial development. Burning of debris generated by machine clearing of an area for the purpose of land clearing or establishing a small garden spot is considered a land type change. These are subject to the EPD land-clearing burning rules and may require the use of an air curtain destructor, depending on the county where the clearing is planned. You must notify the local GFC county ranger when planning these activities. Pine straw producers must still notify GFC when conducting silviculture burns.
It’s also important to note that local burning ordinances (city/county/municipality) concerning open/debris burning supersede these code requirements.
GFC Bleckley/Pulaski Chief Ranger David Brown discusses outdoor burn notification changes with landowner George Grimsley in Hawkinsville, GA.
Safety Measures to Prevent Wildfires Did you know that escaped leaf pile and yard debris burning is the leading cause of wildfires in Georgia? Each year, more than 3,500 wildfires are recorded in our state, and most of them got their start from a backyard burn gone bad.
Despite a requirement to notify the GFC about planned burns and the best intentions of burners, wildfire incidence has remained steady over the years. Wildland firefighters continue to see common mistakes lead to the loss of woodlands, structures and even lives. Complacency is often to blame when fires are left unattended, or smolder- ing embers catch a breeze, only to land and ignite some waiting forest litter. It became clear that change was needed so that a focus on burning safety was not just a good idea; it had to become second nature, with laws that have teeth and ensure burners take full responsibility for containing their fires, and that they are liable for any damage that results from escaped burning. The new law supports Georgians’ right to burn and it outlines measures required of burners to ensure safety. Those measures include five safety standards: 1) adequate space between the fire and woodlands and 2) adequate space between the fire and structures; 3) sunrise-to-sunset burning time frame; 4) person responsible must stay onsite until the fire is extinguished; 5) reasonable precautions must be taken to prevent escaped fire.
It’s important to remember the types of materials you are permitted to burn outdoors: only all-natural vegetation, such as grass and hedge clippings, limbs, leaves, pinecones and other naturally occurring debris, on the premises where they have occurred. In addition, debris cannot be collected at one location and hauled/transported to another site for the purposes of burning. It is unlawful to burn man-made materials such as household garbage, lumber and plastic.
Before You Burn, Take 5! The GFC has launched a campaign to help landowners remember their responsibilities under the new law. Multiple resources are available at GATrees.org, including a video, fact sheets, a copy of the code and Frequently Asked Questions.
As for the five safety standards we mentioned above, there’s an easy-to- remember trick for keeping them top of mind, called the “Take 5! Star.” Each point of the star-shaped Take 5 logo represents a burning safety standard that’s now part of the burner’s responsibilities. The acronym S-S-T-A-R provides details on each point:
“S” SPACE — Burn location must be no less than 25 feet from any woodlands, forestland or field that contains brush, grass or other flammable material.
“S” SPACE — Burn location must be no less than 50 feet from any structure, which includes homes, outbuildings, sheds and barns.
“T” TIME — Burning must take place between sunrise and sunset. (This allows burners more hours to get their burning completed. It also helps support air quality because smoke behaves differently during the day than it does at night, when it settles. This is expected to reduce the number of smoke complaints to the GFC and the EPD from people whose evening activities are negatively impacted by lingering smoke.)
“A” ATTENDANCE — Person responsible must attend burning at all times until fire is completely extinguished and there is no risk for burning to escape control.
“R” REASONABLE PRECAUTIONS — Person responsible must take reasonable and necessary precautions to prevent fire escape or spread from the original location.
Some examples of reasonable precautions include: continuous pressurized water on site; man-made or natural barriers to contain fire, such as bare soil, rocks, bricks, burn barrel, etc.; hand tools or fire-containing equipment on site, such as a rake, shovel, garden hoe, etc.; and weather awareness, such as paying attention to National Weather Service red flag warnings, High Fire designation of Very High or Extreme days, and other hazardous conditions (prolonged drought, low relative humidity, high winds, etc.).
GFC Response Center Manager Erica Stinson monitors wildfire activity and communicates with air and ground resources using modern mapping and communication tools.
Speaking of the Weather The GFC has been active at the county level, sharing information about the burn notification changes with fire departments, city and county leaders, various groups and private citizens. Some of the feedback received has centered on weather forecasts and determining “good days to burn.”
GFC Fire Management Officer Kris Butler has been reminding folks about the various weather resources available to them.
“Two-day weather forecasts are available through smartphones, computers and the media,” he says. “Plus, all of GFC’s tools are still available, including National Weather Service fire forecasts for all of Georgia.” The gateway to copious amounts of fire information can be found at GATrees.org/fire- prevention-suppression.
Butler feels confident that local land- owners, many of whom are certified prescribed burners, will adapt to the changes safely. He also mentioned the proactive measures being taken by local deputies, who’ve been helping share information. Oglethorpe County Chief Ranger Leland Bass says he has fielded a few phone calls, and explaining the changes one-on-one has been beneficial. With fall leaf season approaching, he expects more questions and says his team will be doubling down on outreach to the community.
“We are working on how we can better provide [information on] daily fire danger through some sort of mass broadcast alert system,” says GFC Chief of Protection Frank Sorrells. “So that if weather and/or wildfire conditions are unfavorable for burning, we can share that right away. And on days forecasted to be unfavorable for burning, we can notify citizens so they can reconsider and postpone until conditions change.”
Sorrells emphasizes that the focus is on communications now, and if people have questions or problems, they should contact their local county GFC office.
“We’re all partners in this change,” Sorrells says. “We’re committed to working together to serve our landowners, bring wildfire numbers down, and to do it all safely.” ■
Stasia Kelly is a media relations specialist with the Georgia Forestry Commission. Stasia is focused on telling the story of forestry and the immense impact of the industry on Georgia’s environment, economy and heritage.
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