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2011-03-24

Burn ban permitting being considered

By Judith Pannebaker BCC

Depending on the recommendation of a recently appointed committee, Bandera County residents may get some relief from a near perpetual burn ban that has been imposed for the last several years.
During a protracted discussion abut the efficacy of issuing permits during a burn ban, the key words included “experience,” “commonsense” and “weather conditions. Precinct 4 Commissioner Doug King said burn bans are imposed for people who are not responsible, but Precinct 3 Commissioner Richard Keese countered that the bans also prohibit responsible people from burning.
Exemption permit requested
On Thursday, March 10, rancher Herb Sarkisian and his ranch foreman Bobby Aycock asked county commissioners to implement an exemption permit to the burn ban for agricultural purposes.
According to Sarkisian, since Dec. 31, open burning has only been allowed on two or three days. He said, “We have 30 piles of brush, dead cedar and rotting wood that needs to be burned before we can burn the pastures. We need to burn up the fuel. If there’s a wildfire in the county, it will be disastrous.” Sarkisian added that prescribed pastures burns control habitats needed to maintain wildlife management special valuations.
His long-term goal for the ranch, located on Kyle Ranch Road in Medina, is to restore it to its original condition 100 years ago.
Sarkisian said, “We have prepared for prescribed burns by eduation, training, experience and having proper equipment available.” He also said Aycock had attended a “burn school,” conducted at Texas A&M University.
Although no one can control the weather, being knowledgeable about four other factors can lead to successful prescribed burns, Sarkisian said. The factors include air temperature, moisture contend in the air and soil, foliage surrounding the burn area and wind.
Get ahead of problem
“The county should be pro-active with burning and get ahead of the problem not behind it,” he said. “There needs to be a focus on ranchers engaged in habitat control. We need some relief.”
Fire Marshal John Stith said that the Texas Commission on Environment Quality allows ranchers to engage in prescribed burns. However, to be certified by the State of Texas, a rancher must attend 30 burns, which proves difficult in this area. At the same time, Stith said, counties can also approve regulations that allow residents to engage in prescribed burns - without attending the requisite number of burns.
He agreed that if a workable plan is formulated, permitting for prescribed burns should go through his office. However, Stith admitted he has had little experience with prescribed burns as described by Sarkisian.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Bobby Harris suggested that ranchers inexperienced in conducting prescribed burns should attend one held on the ranches of Sarkisian and Jerry Sides, who also attended the meeting.
Concerned with liability issues, County Judge Richard Evans recommended that a disclaimer be included on any proposed permit that precluded the county “from being swept into the soup if a neighboring house burns.”
Use commonsense
Concurring, Stith offered, “Issuing a permit for a prescribed burn would not give a resident carte blanche to burn.” He said all factors previously cited by Sarkasian must be taken into consideration, including changing weather conditions. Stith also urged people to use commonsense.
As an example, he said burn bans prohibit area dude ranches from offering their clients open campfires; however, the rules were primarily put in place to discourage renegade campfires in wooded areas. Often these campfires were not thoroughly extinguished, leading to grass fires. “Allowing fires to be built in metal pits and pots with an extinguisher handy is reasonable,” Stith said. He added, “However, if a representative from a fire department determines the fire is unsafe, the people will be required to put it out.”
Specific objectives
Billy Griffin, who works for the Soil and Water Conservation District, said prescribed burns are not just “burning a pasture to burn a pasture,” but are conducted to accomplish a specific objective, such as killing cedar and removing Bermuda grass for a better hay harvest. “To do a relatively safe burn, all kinds of parameters must come into play.”
“We have the training and expertise to review burn plans; however, we won’t write burn plans. If you can’t develop an initial burn plan, you lack the knowledge or experience to burn during a burn ban.” Griffin said SWCD personnel would review the plan and visit the land before giving a final determination. “We’ll be super conservative when reviewing a burn plan. This is not something we take lightly.”
When apprised that the pure definition of prescribed burns does not include brush piles, Sarkisian said that he could not burn his pastures safely until ridding his acreage of accumulated brush.
“It all comes back to education and proper equipment,” he said, noting that a spreader draws ashes out in a burned area, decreasing the chances of the burn smoldering and re-igniting later. He asked Griffin not to exclude brush piles in prescribed burns.
“It’s a Catch 22. The problem is there’s been no research done on burning brush piles,” Griffin said.
Sarkisian reiterated that with proper commonsense, equipment and manpower, brush piles could be burned safely - even under a burn ban.
Eliker asked Griffin how many calls he got from ranchers who want to burn during a burn ban.
“For burning brush piles, the number is high, but for burning pastures, it’s low,” Griffin replied.
Matter of $$$
Sarkisian suggested charging a permit fee of $500 with an on-going fee of $250 for the privilege of holding a prescribed burn, saying, “For large ranches, that’s not an insurmountable number or problem.” However, the cost might deter a number of landowners from applying for permits.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Richard Keese balked at charging landowners a fee for burning on their private property. All commissioners agreed with his premise, “We don’t want to look like we favoring large ranches.”
“You walk a thin line regarding property rights,” Evans said, who also noted, “If we don’t burn up the fuel and a fire comes, we’ll have a catastrophe.”
It was stressed that even with a permit to burn during a ban, people would still be held responsible for damages.
Everyone agreed that County Attorney John Payne should be able to put some teeth in any proposed county statute covering permitted burns. “John can make any county plan more stringent, such as requiring monitoring throughout the burn and making any offense a Class C misdemeanor and imposing a $500 fine,” Griffin said.
“If we adopt a permitting process and see there’s a problem, the county can always pull the plug,” Stith added.
‘People need relief’
“We owe the people in this county some kind of relief,” Harris said. “We must come up with some kind of workable plan to help these people.”
“Issuing a permit would make the public aware that they will be held responsible and will be prosecuted,” Keese said.
At the end of the protracted discussion, an ad hoc committee comprised of Stith, Sarkisian, King Keese, Griffin, Aycock and Payne was appointed. They were asked to hammer out the details of a proposed permitting process, which would include brush piles in prescribed burns. The committee would return to the court with recommendations at a later date.
To Fidel Ramirez’s suggestion that the meetings be open to elicit public input, Evans said that before a permitting process would be approved, a public hearing would be scheduled.