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Burn ban goes into effect May 1

By Kathy Jefcoats

There are two recent accidents that bring Georgia Forestry Commission Chief Ranger Jenny Lynn Bruner to tears – accidents that could easily have been avoided if only proper fire safety precautions had been followed.

Two Middle Georgia landowners, one in Milledgeville, the other in Gray, died in recent weeks when they tried to contain out of control woodland fires on their properties. In Milledgeville, the resident suffered a heart attack.

In Gray, an 86-year-old diabetic suffered burns to the bone on both legs when he fell into his fire. Taken to an Augusta hospital for treatment, his legs were amputated. He died Sunday.

"Their fires had gotten away from them and they tried to fight them alone," said Bruner, overcome with emotion at the recollection. "There are a lot of landowners out there who try to fight fires on their own. They need to wait for trained firefighters. It is not worth them risking their lives over."

In Henry County, the number of woodland fires responded to by the Georgia Forestry Commission since July nearly doubled in March alone, thanks to dry weather and high winds. Some 20 fires in March burned 56.20 acres, for a total 44 wildfires since July, Bruner said.

The numbers are drastically lower in Clayton County where GFC firefighters responded to three woodland fires since July – two in March – that burned 2.56 acres.

Beginning May 1, through Oct. 1, there will be a ban on outdoor burning in metro Atlanta, with certain exceptions. However, Clayton County has a burn ban that is determined weekly. Fire Marshal Jeff Scarbrough said it will take "significant" rainfall to allow outdoor burning.

"It has been 100 years since we've had a rainfall deficit in March like we've had this year," he said. "It's extremely dry right now and we're not allowing any outdoor bans."

There are no burn bans in Henry County and none are expected until the metro-wide May 1 ban goes into effect, said Henry County fire Capt. Sabrina Puckett. Henry County Fire Department reported 84 grass, brush or woodland fires during March.

To determine a legal burn, contact the GFC at 770-954-2003. Bruner said it is worth it to residents to learn about burn restrictions.

"For certain burns, the Environmental Protection Division can fine you," she said.

In Georgia, the No. 1 cause of wildfires is debris burns that got away.

"People think they know fire safety and how to control outdoor burning so they won't listen to us and take advice on outdoor fires," said Bruner. "They need to listen to people who are trained in the field and let us help them."

Scarbrough said during March, Clayton County firefighters sometimes responded to six-seven woods or grass fires at the same time. The fires were caused by out of control controlled burns, someone throwing out a lit cigarette from a passing vehicle or kids playing with matches.

"People just don't realize how quickly a fire can get out of control," he said. "Fires can leap 20-30-40-50 feet and are very unpredictable."

Residents should not try to fight fires on their own, no matter how the fires started. Instead, they should call 911 for assistance.

Alternatives to outdoor burning during the ban period include recycling materials, taking items to the landfill and using the debris to start a mulch pile. Bruner suggests accessing the Keep America Beautiful and Earth Day Web sites for more information.

"You can only burn yard debris anyway so there's nothing wrong with holding on to that debris until after the ban ends in October," she said. "Then, take a little at a time and burn it."

Recycling rather than burning is also encouraged because of environmental concerns.

"Check those Web sites for ways to recycle and reuse," said Bruner. "We very much encourage people to recycle when possible. Our ozone is very important to all of us."

Safety tips to keep in mind when burning outdoors start with calling GFC to get a burn permit. A permit can also be gotten online through accessing www.gfc.state.ga.us and following links to the online permit system.

According to the GFC, fires should not be initiated before 8 a.m. and should be completely extinguished before dark. In highly populated areas, burning times should be 10 a.m. until 30 minutes before dark.

Residents should always check the fire weather forecast and current fire danger rating for their area before starting any outdoor burning. It is against the law to burn manmade materials such as tires, shingles and plastics.

As for the burn pile itself, a rake and water hose should be within reach and the pile should not be left unattended. The pile should not be started on grass that could also catch fire and spread.

Puckett said smokers should be careful about discarding lit cigarette butts and about using tools that require heat, such as welders. Drivers also need to take care when parking their cars in tall grass because a hot muffler can spark a blaze.