Ban breakers could get burned

Those in the Twin Cities who continue to flout the new absolute ban on outside residential burning in both municipalities will pay the price in fines, pollution officials say.

Local police and fire officials -- and even your neighbors -- are being encouraged by the Southwest Clean Air Authority to keep their eyes open for violators, said SWCAA director Bob Elliott.

Sooner or later, enforcement officials with the small regional clean-air agency will get around to handing out warnings first, and then citations.

Complaints about violators have only trickled in during the first month of the ban, Elliott said, but he expects more as time goes by.

"We find that generally it doesn't take very long before the word gets out," he said.

In Clark County, the home of the SWCAA, a ban has been in effect for seven years, said Elliott.

"We find that after a time, the citizens come to enjoy the (decreased) pollution," Elliott said.

About 80 percent of citations are generated from citizen complaints, he said.

Fire departments and police usually don't get involved unless property damage is imminent or if burning is done at night, but they do forward reports of offenders to SWCAA, he said.

Barbecues, grills and recreational fires are still allowed, he added.

"We're trying to point people toward recycling or using a wood chipper to get rid of yard waste," Elliott said.

"What's next?" said Lewis County political watchdog Phil Lydig at the announcement of the ban at a Lewis County Commission meeting in October. "Are they going to tell us when we can use our wood stoves?"

"This burn ban was written into the 1991 Clean Air Act," Elliott said. "In the late 1990s, legislators decided things were going a little fast, and decided to pull up a little bit."

According to the state Clean Air Act, "outdoor burning" refers to the combustion of any material of any type in an open fire, or in an outdoor container, without providing for control of emissions from the fire.

But many continue to be critical of the bans.

"My office is aware that this has gone on for 100 years," Elliott said. "And we're aware there are many officials that would prefer this didn't happen, (but) in Clark County, with patience and persistence, we've made headway."

One of those officials is Bob Spahr, mayor of Chehalis.

"I just don't think it's necessary," Spahr said. "It's a very rural area and community. Now they want us to drive a truck to a landfill where it will be driven by a diesel truck to a diesel locomotive and taken all the way to Eastern Oregon."

Spahr says he burns yard waste for three families twice a year. In order to comply with the burn ban, he'd have to buy a used truck, insure it, license it and pay landfill fees, as well as buy fuel for the truck.

Elliott estimated fines for second-time offenders at $50, but said the 1991 Clean Air Act gives him the authority to levy fines as high as $10,000 to repeat offenders.

Spahr said environmental safeguards have gotten out of step with reality.

"They've got us right between a rock and a hard place, just like where Mr. Elliott is," he said. "Nobody wants anything dirty, but I think it's gone a bit overboard. Either cut down all the trees or give us an option for disposing of yard waste that doesn't cost a fortune."

Outdoor burning is a concern because it emits various pollutants that can affect public health. Those pollutants include carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and various volatile organic compounds and toxic substances, Elliott said.

Aggravation of respiratory and cardiovascular systems, and decreased lung capacity, are among the physical problems related to outdoor burning.

The 2001 ban affects only municipalities with populations of more than 5,000, which includes only Centralia and Chehalis in Lewis County at present.

Land-clearing burning is also prohibited in this area.

Future bans will affect outdoor burning within the urban growth areas of Napavine, Winlock, Morton, Mossyrock, Toledo and Vader. Outdoor burning will be prohibited with these areas after Dec. 31, 2006. Rural areas of Lewis County aren't affected.

A statewide rule requires that a "reasonable alternative" decision be updated at three-year intervals to determine if new alternatives have become available, and whether additional areas need to be added to the prohibited area.


Kurt Eckert covers police and court news for The Chronicle. He can be reached by e-mail at or by calling 807-8235.

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