Outdoor fires in line for new permit rules

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 18, 2012 - 6:31 PM

Carver County's rural areas would tie into DNR system.

Finger clicks will replace handshakes under a proposed change to fire permits that is headed toward approval next month in Carver County.

For decades, residents in the county's 10 townships who wanted to burn waste wood and brush outdoors followed a familiar ritual: Drive to the local fire warden's home or town hall, pay $5 for a 30-day permit, and call a phone number and leave a message on each day of burning. It's a different story for cities, where fire chiefs or city clerks typically control permits, and open burning is usually prohibited or severely restricted.

Under the new system being considered, rural residents could use an Internet-based permit system run by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources that would allow fire departments to have immediate access about who is burning what, when and where.

It also allows the DNR to withhold permission on days when weather conditions are too dry or windy, which may be crucial this year because the landscape is so dry.

"If we don't start getting good spring moisture, we're going to have a very significant spring fire season," said Olin Phillips, DNR section manager of forest protection.

"And I think there will be a lot more restrictions earlier on burning."

For users, they'll be able to log onto a website, obtain a $5 permit that's valid for one year, and activate the permit for each burn.

Carver County commissioners discussed the change last week, and scheduled a public hearing for March 20.

Environmental Services Manager Mike Lein said that about 850 people receive burning permits annually in Carver County, often to get rid of brush in the spring.

They call a county phone number each day that they burn, he said, and last year the phone system logged about 1,400 calls.

"March and April really get busy, especially on the weekends," he said. On some Monday mornings Lein said he arrives at work to find 200 messages from those who called to report burning.

That system doesn't work particularly well, said Jim Wilson, DNR fire program forester in southern Minnesota.

Firefighters are in the dark

"There's really no direct link between what's going on with open burning and any of the dispatchers and fire departments," he said.

The state system solves that problem, Phillips said, because those who want to burn must call and get an activation number on the day they're burning. The DNR knows on any given day who is burning and where the fires are.

"If a fire department gets a report of a fire, they can immediately access the website and review whether it's a permit fire before they have to run out and check it," Phillips said.

If there were safety risks in Carver County on a particular day, Phillips said callers that day would hear a message that "currently permits are not being allowed to be activated."

DNR launched the electronic permit system about five years ago, he said, and most counties in the northern two-thirds of Minnesota have adopted it for their rural communities. In the southern part of the state, dominated by farms, sheriffs usually control burning permits, he said.

Losing face time

The proposed changes in Carver County will allow both systems to operate, at least for now, so that those without Internet service or who prefer the fire warden system can still receive permits. Lein said that the electronic system is more convenient, faster and more useful for emergency responders and law enforcement. However, Lein also said that something could be lost as the old system fades away.

Those who click on their computers to get a permit don't have to answer any questions that might be part of a face-to-face meeting with a fire warden or town clerk, he said. And they don't have to be reminded that trash, tires, furniture, structures and many other wastes cannot be burned.

"I'm a little worried about enforcement, because it's potentially a little easier to cheat, or burn things that aren't supposed to be burned," Lein said.

"It's easier to lie to a computer than to a person."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

  • WHAT'S NEXT

    A public hearing on switching to the DNR system for outdoor burning permits is scheduled at 4 p.m. on March 20 at the Carver County Government Center in Chaska.

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