By Jason A. Smith
Local and state fire safety officials are hopeful recently announced limits on outdoor burning will reduce the risk of fires in the coming months.
The Georgia Forestry Commission announced earlier this week that, as of Jan. 1, annual burn permits will be null and void, and people who wish to burn must notify the commission before doing so.
According to Jenny Lynn Bruner, the commission chief ranger for Henry, Butts and Clayton counties, smoke management is one major concern that led to the decision to nullify the permits.
"If we've got annual permits out in the same general area, then we can't monitor where the smoke is because [people] don't have to notify us before burning," she said. "If people call to get permits, we can manage the smoke better."
Residents' concerns about smoke management have increased following a Feb. 28 incident in which a cloud of smoke covered an area from Jenkinsburg to Atlanta, including much of Henry County. The chief ranger said the smoke accumulated from prescribed burns south of Henry.
Henry County Fire Chief Barry Jenkins approves of the forestry commission's move, but notes there is still a need for prescribed burning -- a precaution in which those with permits burn off dry leaves and tinder in underbrush that can easily ignite during brush fires.
"We are pleasantly surprised that we haven't had many brush fires so far this year,"Jenkins said. "We realize that prescribed burning is necessary. But right now, with the dryness and congestion in the county, smoke management is very important."
With the new limitations on outdoor burning, Jenkins said local fire departments should be able to better manage smoke and burning in the areas they serve.
Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John Oxendine supports the burning limits, and describe them as an appropriate approach to managing smoke.
"We've been very concerned about people burning," Oxendine said. "I have, for the last several months, advised people not to do outdoor burning."
He explained that fire chiefs around the state have expressed similar concerns to him about the frequency and potential dangers of outdoor burning. Oxendine believes nullification of annual burn permits should also cut down on the number of prescribed burns that get out of control. "I think it definitely will make things safer," he added.
In addition to limiting outdoor burning, Commissioner Oxendine advises campers not to build camp fires, if possible, during the drought.
Cheif Ranger Bruner said she encourages people to limit themselves to prescribed burns. Firefighters, she said, "have the upper hand" in those cases, and are able to better control the spread of fires.
In addition, people who wish to burn items, whether before or after the new limit is in place, should "show courtesy" to those around them. "Please advise your neighbors when you're doing a burn, in case someone has a breathing problem," said Bruner.
- Staff writer Johnny Jackson contributed to this article.