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2011-03-31

Prescribed burn permitting passed by commissioners

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

After another long discussion, Bandera County Commissioners approved permitting of prescribed burns during an on-going burn ban. However, according to County Fire Marshal John Stith, such permits are likely to be "few and far between."
On Thursday, March 10, Medina rancher Herb Sarkisian asked the court to consider issuing a permit if certain criteria were met. On Thursday, March 24, a special appointed ad hoc committee brought "a workable plan" to commissioners - with several caveats. Landowners who apply for the special exemption must not only show an urgent need, but also must possess knowledge of, proficiency in and proper equipment for conducting a prescribed burn.
Stith said that chiefs of the various volunteer fire departments had expressed reservations about permits. "They are concerned about the regulation of prescribed burns."
Not want, but need
Regarding burning accumulated brush during a burn ban, Stith said, "It's not a matter of wanting to burn a brush pile, but needing to burn it for a specific reason." For instance, he said clearing land for road construction in a housing development might necessitate burning of accumulated brush.
Certain restrictions would still apply, Stith emphasized. "No permits will be issued for burning in congested areas, where little need exists," he added. No burns will be permitted within 300 feet of a residence unless prior written approval is obtained. If smoke from a burn becomes overwhelming - or engenders complaints - fire departments are authorized to extinguish the prescribed burn, Stith said, adding, "We have to try to keep some sensible control."
Precinct 4 Commissioner Doug King opined, "If neighbors see a burn, they'll light up, too."
"You only need three votes to put an end to the permitting of prescribed burns," Stith replied. "Conditions are serious out there. The drought index is about as bad as it can get. With the amount of fuel available, if we have a fire, it will be a huge deal."
Unwilling to overburden local fire departments financially, Stith advocated charging a fee for the permit and for expenses incurred while fighting an uncontrolled blaze initiated by a permitted prescribed burn. "Fees and expenses can address suppression costs, but the legal authority is questionable for fire departments to collect money," he said.
Got to have plan
Issuing prescribed burn permits during a burn ban essentially allows a county to supercede state rules and regulations. For certification by the state, a burn manager must have attended 30 burns, which locals find almost impossible. However, county authorities will also put strict rules in place for prescribed burns. "A landowner will have to have enough training to fill out a burn plan correctly," Stith said.
Additionally, a landowner will be required to submit his burn plan to administrators with the local Soil & Water Conservation District for review. They will also conduct a site visit along with Stith and note any potential problems. The plan will then be forwarded to Stith for a second review. If everything checks out, a permit will be issued. "If the SWCD has a problem with a prescribed burn, then I'll have a problem with the burn," Stith told the court.
Once issued, the permit would be good for an as yet unspecified time. On the day of the prescribed burn, the landowner is required to contact both Stith and the Bandera County Sheriff's Office. "The location of the burn will go out over law enforcement radio channels," Stith said.
No acreage limits
Judge Richard Evans made it clear that if owners of small tracts identified a need and submitted an acceptable burn plan, they could also apply for a prescribed burn permit. "There are no acreage limits. This applies to everyone if they quality," he said.
"There has to be a need for this or we will lose control," Stith advised. "We must be cautious and apply the same standards to everyone. If a permit is disapproved, it will be for a good reason."
A repeal process for a landowner denied a permit would include review by County Attorney John Payne.
Addressing allowable campfires during a burn ban, Stith said requirements would include close monitoring with someone physically present at the campfire at all times and notification of BCSO. He said most campfires would be conducted at local dude ranches, hunting lodges and RV parks.
Stith reiterated that during a burn ban, firefighters have authority to extinguish campfires that appear unsafe.
'Another arrow in quiver'
Payne said most of his work with the permitting process had been directed to protecting the county from liability. As he noted, "It only costs $285 to file a lawsuit." However, Payne characterized the permitting of prescribed burns as "another arrow in the quiver for the county to deal with the problem of combustible fuel that has been building up."
He continued, "If someone violates what you're trying to do, Judge Evans and I will take care of it."
"If you were sitting here, would you permit?" Evans asked Payne.
"Yes, I think it's a tool that's needed, but you have to look at the process. The court has the power to review Mr. Stith's decision. The buck stops here," Payne repled. "The bottom line is I want the county to have this tool and to put it in the hands of qualified people."
Most county landowners spoke in favor of permitting prescribed burns, but as an administrator, Rusty Landry, who serves as chief of the Lakeshores Volunteer Fire Department, voiced concerns. "The burn ban was put there for a reason and other options are available. Burning is not the only option; it's the fastest and cheapest option."
Raising the specter of escalated costs incurred should a prescribed burn get out of control, he said, "Our resources - fuel, trucks and manpower - are used every time we fight a fire. It costs us every time we put a truck in the field. And each time we fight a fire, we put lives on the line."
Landry suggested that commissioners set a bond to enable VFDs to recoup some of the funds expended. "All the 'thank you's' don't put diesel fuel in the truck," he said, predicting, "There'll come a time when we no longer have the financial ability to help. We need restitution other than a 'thank you, boys'."
He concluded, "We will back anyone in this county - anytime, anywhere, but we ask you to help us."
Noting that the permitting process would help volunteer fire departments, Tarpley ranch owner Phil Becker said that most burn bans are enacted at a time when it becomes viable to burn - when dry fuel causes a intense fire. He said burns are planned a year ahead of time, not a day ahead. "If you pay close attention to the weather, it's very difficult for a prescribed burn to get out of control. I support the issue."
Recouping funds
After citizens' comments, Stith asked the court if there were any legal way for fire departments to recoup funds.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Bruce Eliker suggested requiring a bond to be posted because a prescribed burn is conducted in exceptional conditions.
"As part of the application process, when a landowner signs a contract to indemnify and secure the obligation of the contract, we could ask for a posted bond to secure the contractual obligation," Payne said, suggesting that contract be tweaked and tightened to "safeguard what needs to be safeguarded. We can put in all the rules we think we require."
"Kendall County attaches list of fees as part of that county's permitting process," Precinct 2 Commissioner Bobby Harris said.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Richard Keese suggested requiring both a fee and posted bond for permitting prescribed burns.
Evans also noted that a lot of homeowners' policies would reimburse fire departments for their expenses.
Concurring with Stith's opinion that "reimbursing volunteer fire departments are a necessity," Payne said, "Fire departments and EMS need to be protected when landowners apply for an exception to the burn ban." EMS Director Cindy Martin offered that according to national standards and for billing purposes, it costs $400 to $600 per hour per truck in the field.
Bobby Aycock, manager for Sarkisian's ranch, Woodlands, said, "The problem is those who don't go through the permitting process. That'll be 80 percent and you won't recoup from them."
"Since landowners have applied for an exception, it becomes an enforceable contract," Stith said.
No M&M's
"If people choose to burn during a burn ban, there needs to be fees associated with it," Harris said. "I have confidence in John. This is a tool that gives us the ability to burn fuel in a legal manner."
He made a motion to adopt the order under the strictest guidelines with fees that included $25 for the permit application and a $20,000 bond payable to county volunteer fire departments. The motion passed unanimously.
"Everybody needs to understand this permitting is an exception to the rule," Harris said. "We won't be handing out permits like M&Ms on Halloween. Strict guidelines must be followed."
"This is the most progress we've made in 15 years," Evans said.
In a later edition, the Bandera County Courier will publish the guidelines for a permitted prescribed burn.