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2011-04-21

Bond disappears from burn permitting app

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

Although on the books for less than two weeks, a new county regulation that allows permitting for burns during a ban has already hit a snag - and a major one, according to Fire Marshal John Stith.
Required as part of process were fees of $25 for the permit application and an individual $20,000 bond payable to county volunteer fire departments.
However, as Stith pointed out, securing the bond has posed a problem. "There's been a difficulty finding someone to write a bond," he said. "We had to deny permits to three people because they weren't able to secure the necessary bonds. A NRCS (National Resource Conservation Service) person in Medina couldn't even get a bond." Stith asked commissioners to remove the bond requirement from the permitting process.
When Judge Richard Evans asked County Attorney John Payne to weigh in, Payne replied, "The question is up to the court to decide the importance of the [permitting] tool for the landowners' of the county." He also told the court he had been informed almost immediately that "the bond route was not going to work" because "the bond business had changed with the environment. Insurance people said bonds were no longer available."
On the other hand, Payne noted that he felt it was of importance to have protection for the volunteer fire departments included in the process, saying, "Firefighters go in harm's way and put their lives and equipment at risk."
He also reminded the court that permitting only comes into play during dangerous conditions in the county when burn bans are in effect.
"If a fire gets out of hand, it will come to me as county attorney. For crime victims, we have a restitution statute. The volunteer fire departments should be able to submit their losses, but I can't see including them as part of the statute. I don't think I could make that stick in court - a volunteer fire department can't be a victim," Payne said.
However, he recommended possibly making restitution to the various VFDs a part of the permitting process. "Volunteer fire departments should be taken care of. This is an important tool to the county and landowners," Payne said. In conclusion, he noted, "If the permitting process is important, excise the bond stipulation from the process."
After the briefest of pauses, Evans said dryly, "I was looking for a yes or no answer."
Precinct 3 Commissioner Bobby Harris noted that permitting burns during a countywide ban would only be done on a very limited basis - and only during emergency situations. Concurring with Payne, he said, "Since the bond is not a doable thing, I suggest we remove it."
As Stith pointed out, verbiage in orders and statutes already make individuals liable for damages that occur during out-of-control burns.
"Permitting burns puts a lot of reliance on your decision making," Evans told Stith.
"Before issuing a permit for a prescribed burn, we'll be looking at a lot of things," Stith said. "My first job is to take care of the people.
After discussions ended, commissioners voted unanimously to remove the bond requirement from the burn permitting process.
In a related subject, April has been designated Wildfire Awareness Month. This year to date, more than 1,528,714 acres of land in Texas has burned as a result of dangerous, rapidly spreading wildfires.
Additionally, Texas Forest Service personnel have identified more than 14,000 communities as being at risk for wildland fires.
Families are urged to teach children about fire safety, post fire emergency telephone numbers and avoid outdoor activities that could cause a spark during current times of severe drought conditions.
"Homes and yards can be the first line of defense in the event of a fire," said Wildland Urban Interface and Prevention Program Coordinator Justice Jones. He urged residents to create an area around their homes free of flammable plants, brush and other items.
To learn more about how protecting families and property, visit the Texas Forest Service website, texasforestservice.tamu.edu/. Additional disaster preparedness information also can be accessed through the Texas Division of Emergency Management at www.txdps.state.tx.us/dem