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Don't burn that!

Firefighters explain the 'dos' - and especially the 'don'ts' - of a safe burn season in Oregon

With the burn season for yard debris set to begin tomorrow, Clackamas County Fire District #1 is planning to take a more aggressive approach to illegal fires.

'According to ORS 478, the district can recovery costs that may incur from responding to or extinguishing an illegal burn anywhere in its territory,' said Deputy Fire Marshal Grant Brough.

Lt. John Hopkins, public information officer for CCFD #1, explained the rationale behind the shift.

'Our goal is to reduce the number of illegal fires in the fire district,' he said. 'In an average year, we run calls for a couple of hundred illegal burns. If you figure it costs $100 an hour to run a piece of apparatus - that's a huge waste of resources.'

A burn is illegal if it occurs outside prescribed season or when prohibited by the Department of Environmental Quality, owing to prevailing weather conditions; or, if the burning material is anything other than vegetation - such as plastic or scrap wood.

'Even if it's the right time of year for burning, you still need to call the burn line,' said Brough. 'Just because its raining doesn't mean you can burn, and just because it's a really nice, sunny day doesn't mean you can burn.

'What DEQ is looking for are specific conditions that will insure that the smoke will move quickly into the upper atmosphere and disperse, rather than being trapped close to the ground.'

To safely conduct a burn, debris should be piled in an open space cleared of flammable material 25 feet in all directions. As only vegetation can be burned, paper cannot be used to kindle the flames.

'We've gone out on calls to house fires where flaming scraps of paper have blown off of burn piles and gotten into the eves of the house,' explained Brough. 'The best way to light a burn pile is using a propane torch. They are available at Home Depot, Fred Meyer - any place that sells propane products.

'It's clean, you don't have to use illegal materials to start your fire, and it can maintain a steady flame to get even wet materials burning.'

Gasoline should never be used to start a burn because of the danger of explosion.

'It's like throwing a stick of dynamite in the middle of your pile,' Hopkins said.

Water, in the form of a garden hose, should be available at the location of the burn.

'It should be long enough to go all the way around the complete perimeter of the fire,' said Brough. 'Make sure it's turned on and ready to go. You also need to have a shovel or some other tool on hand.'

A cell phone is another important piece of safety equipment, to be able to call 9-1-1 promptly if the fire begins to spread out of control.

'An adult, age 18 or older, needs to be present for the entire duration of the burn,' Brough said. 'At the end of the prescribed burn time, your pile should be out and smoke free. If it's still smoking, you need to extinguish it.'

Burning anything other than vegetation, such as plastic or engineered wood products, will release dangerous chemicals into the air, along with thick, noxious smoke.

'All of these same products are used in the construction of houses, which is why firefighters wear self-contained breathing apparatus,' said Hopkins. 'We know better than most how dangerous that can be, and that's what people are putting in the air when they burn illegal materials.'