Guest Column: Rescind the open-burning ban!

July 1, 1993

Guest Column: Rescind the open-burning ban!

By Jim Lynn

Put another log on the fire. Not!

That extra log could cost you a $100 fine if you happen to live in Winnebago County. The county board has banned open burning of all organic material for other than “recreational” purposes. Sound crazy?

The new county ordinance prohibiting open burning is a slap in the face to tens of thousands of rural Winnebago County citizens. Burning tree limbs, grasslands and leaves is a time-honored, basic, cost-efficient tool for clearing and maintaining the land. But the Winnebago County Board has effectively ended 180 years of open burning with its ill-conceived ban.

The new law also imposes large fees on landowners without the means to pay refuse haulers to dispose of all organic matter. Organic material, not otherwise mulched or composted, may be stuffed into designated small paper bags. The charge per bag to be hauled is $2. Now imagine living out in the county with one or two dozen large maple trees in your lawn. These trees can easily generate hundreds of cubic yards of leaves every year. If the leaves from these trees had to be bagged and hauled away, the cost would be in the hundreds of dollars. That’s OK if you have the strength to stuff a couple hundred paper bags with leaves and limbs, and do not mind paying the estimated $400 to have them hauled. But what if you are elderly and on a fixed income?

Alternatives to burning include mulching and composting. But there is a practical limit to how much one can mulch and compost. After that, county residents need to burn their excess organic material because burning is the most economical and natural way to dispose of it.

There are now literally hundreds of brush piles out in the county waiting to be burned. These piles were formed by piling up tree limbs that continually fall every year from age and wind. Since these piles can no longer be burned, they will now sit and rot rather than be hauled. Landowners with limited means are now forced to let their tree-covered yards and land sit idle. The bottom line is that the new open-burn ban creates more problems than it solves.

Most open burning occurs during a few weeks in the spring and fall, not all year long. Burning happens out of town away from heavy population. The supposed health risk that is the cause for the ban is minimal. As the air moves along, molecular-sized smoke particles are filtered out of the air and deposited back to earth. The process is natural and an important aspect to the survival of our ecosystem.

If open burning of leaves and fallen tree limbs in the county is such a health hazard, why then allow plumbing air vents or fireplaces in homes? Both of these utilities put more pollutants and smoke particles into the air than all open fires combined. Virtually every home in the county has a plumbing air vent. The vents are there to release putrefied sewer gas into the atmosphere that is created from human waste in the sewer pipe. Now imagine the outcome of all this gas in the atmosphere, were it not for the natural cleansing action of the air itself.

If open burning creates a health hazard as the county board wants us to believe, why then allow any fires at all? Why is it OK to allow firewood to be burned for recreational purposes and not for utility purposes? Certainly there are far more outdoor recreational fires, all through the year, than there is leaf burining and brush pile burning combined. Why is it OK for homeowners to burn wood in their fireplaces? I’ll tell you why. The excuse to ban open burning, i.e., aggravating health hazard, is fraudulent.

Winnebago County Board District Rep. Cheryl Box stated, “53,474 people in Winnebago County suffer from selected respiratory diseases, all of which may be aggravated by the smoke from leaf burning.” The operative words she uses are “may be aggravated.” Cheryl doesn’t say “is” aggravated, just “may” be aggravated. So she and other ill-informed board members placed a ban on open burning based on an assumption with few facts.

What Cheryl and other board members failed to consider are other factors that cause and aggravate respiratory disease. How many of those 53,474 citizens smoke tobacco? How many live in homes with poor air quality? It seems to this writer that our county board is more interested in being politically correct than they are in exercising common sense. Certainly, none of those who voted for the ban are concerned with wood piles or the hundreds of cubic yards of leaves lying on other people’s property.

The open fire ban is a bad law that needs to be rescinded. If it is not rescinded, health-related problems will increase, and property values will begin to fall as a direct result of the ban. Vermin are attracted to uncleared areas caused from not clearing accumulated debris. Home and land value will fall as the land sits idle.

Jim Lynn is a minister, an author, and a resident who is concerned with rural community issues.

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