CHAMPLAIN — Town and fire officials here are hoping a new open-burning law will head off out-of-control grass fires."You can't burn anything unless you have a permit," said Town of Champlain Code Enforcement Officer Michael Tetreault Jr.The exception to that is the outdoor barbecue or cookout in the appropriate fire pit or on a grill, a fire-department training exercise or a burn that's part of an existing farm operation.The latter two require permits.Also allowed by permit is the burning of brush, trees and other clean, untreated wood products at the code-enforcement officer's discretion and with warning to Clinton County Fire Control so well-meaning 911 calls about smoke don't summon firefighters.But it's goodbye burn barrels for paper, cardboard and other such trash. Those little blazes, said Tetreault, very often spark the creeping, spreading grass fires that get out of control and can threaten structures."We had an exceptional amount of them (last) spring and early summer because of the dry season we had," he said. "The majority of them were set and then the people just left them unattended."Such fires waste fire-department resources and the time of the volunteers who respond to them, he said. Last year, a barn burned due to a trash fire that spread."Sooner or later, someone could get hurt," Tetreault said.Burning permits, which are free, won't be hard to get, he continued.The law, which was passed by the Town Council last fall, says application must be 48 hours in advance, but Tetreault said that's flexible.Both he and Town Clerk Julie Castine can issue the permits at the Town Office Complex on Route 9."It's up to (applicants) to call Fire Control so the fire departments don't get called out," Tetreault said. "And they need to be there to monitor their fire."For a time, he'll be issuing warnings for violators.It's about educating the public, he said."I realize it's going to take some time."Meanwhile, he said, "I'm not going to go out and look for smoke."But repeat offenders beware, Tetreault added, as the law lets him issue appearance tickets that can result in a $100 fine for first offense, $500 for the second and a fine of $1,500 and/or up to 30 days in Clinton County Jail for a third violation.
The Champlain law is patterned much after one that has been enforced in the Town of Plattsburgh since 1998.There, said Plattsburgh Code Enforcement Officer Don Lee, the concern had been with congested areas such as mobile-home parks, where burn barrels were in common use."I was getting called out all the time" on complaints, he recalled.The Town Council was a bit reluctant to create an open-burning law when state law already banned burning garbage, Lee said, but took the plunge. And for about the first six months, he made a point of issuing warnings to violators.The first year, one fine was issued, Lee said."Since that time, I may have fined three or four people for open burning."Although (the council members) were apprehensive" about the law, he said, "it has worked out very well."When the last snow showers ease off and the ground dries, Tetreault fully expects to get calls from Champlain Fire Department, asking him to join firefighters at the perennial grass fires, as he did last year. But this law, he said, is the start of reducing those incidents and their inherent dangers."They're preventable," he said. "If they're preventable, we need to prevent them."