Brush fire season is upon us, but this year counties have a new tool in their firefighting arsenal with Senate Bill 28, which went into effect Aug. 28.
On the Department of Public Safety website, State Fire Marshal Randy Cole said the Division of Fire Safety will work closely with local fire agencies to ensure that county officials understand the new law's provisions.
"In 2012, Missouri experienced numerous brush fires and wildfires that destroyed thousands of acres," Cole said. "Prevention is key to fire safety, and enabling counties to enforce burn bans when conditions are dangerous will help protect the safety of Missourians and their property."
Among other provisos, the county commission will now have the power to declare a burn ban when the state fire marshal says it is appropriate. The decision will be based on data from the U.S Drought monitor, http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/, that has designated a county as an area of severe, extreme or exceptional drought and "an actual or impending occurrence of a natural disaster of major proportions within the county jeopardizes the safety and welfare" of the inhabitants of the county.
Big River Chief David Pratte, heading a department which covers a large rural area in the northern section of the county, says while he is in favor of the county having the ability to establish a burn ban, he is concerned about how effective the county will be in educating the citizenry that such a ban is in place.
"How well is the county going to alert the people I service that there is a burn ban? And I don't know how they are going to get to everybody, whether they take the time to put it in the newspaper or out on the radio. But if you flip that, everybody that lights a match and sets something on fire is responsible. If you are going to burn, you should be responsible enough to know if it's too dry or not," Pratte said.
The new law makes it a class A misdemeanor to conduct open burning when a burn ban is in effect. The penalty could carry fines and up to a year in jail.
"I think for a while its going to be a tough call. I think until this gets established and tested some of the fire chiefs and myself are going to back down and continue what we do, without pushing that, not knowing how this new law will stand up. I think it is in how the officer reads the law and how is the prosecutor going to look at it," Pratte said.
Will fire protection districts, whose income comes from the sale of fire tags, be required to testify against tag holders that support the district? If it does, could this alienate local fire departments from those they serve?
"Whether I am interconnected to that problem or not, it's going to appear I am. If you take a tax-based fire department and they do it, those people pay taxes, they aren't going to have the clout to harm the fire department. Whereas a tag holder would hold it against us," Pratte said.
The ban will also prohibit missile and skyrocket type, but not other, commercial fireworks. Pratte says the department has seen their share of problems from those types of fires in the past.
The legislation stems from extreme weather conditions during last year’s drought. The chief says part of the problem with the bill is that even if the county is not under drought conditions, there could be ground fuel dry enough to ignite and spread.
"A drought is when the state says there is a drought. A dry time is a time between showers. So, right now they haven't labeled it a drought, but I promise you I can go out and its brush fire season for us. It is that time when this starts happening in our wooded areas because people go, 'It's not that dry, heck it just rained.' It goes back to the different materials; the leaves dry out in an hour, then the wood, so within a 12-hour window we could have a very hard burn season," Pratte said.