The Georgia Forestry Commission is attempting to eliminate unnecessary wildfires and recover fire suppression costs by charging residents a fee for non-permitted fires that get out of control.
Martinez-Columbia Fire and Rescue Capt. Ray Blessing carries a hose to be rolled back up after fighting a 10-acre grass fire on Aspen Laurel Drive off William Few Parkway in Columbia County. The Georgia Forestry Commission charges to suppress fires where the property owner did not seek a permit to burn.
Photo by Valerie Rowell
Steve Abbott, the chief ranger for the Georgia Forestry's Richmond/Columbia unit, said that to burn yard debris, residents are now required to get a burn permit.
Open burning without a permit is a misdemeanor punishable up to $1,000 and a year in jail.
Abbott said the commission responds to an average of 30 to 60 wildfires in Columbia County each year. That number includes fires by residents burning yard debris on private property that get out of control, especially during the low humidity levels and wind in the spring, Abbott said.
"Most of our fires that do cause problems are the nonpermitted burns," Abbott said. "It varies from year to year. But that's what we are trying to eliminate, all the unnecessary wildfires. If people would take just a little more precaution and call us and get the weather data, we can guide them on a good day to burn vs. another day."
Burn permits are free and can be obtained by calling the Georgia Forestry Commission's Columbia County office at 556-3962 or on the commission's Web site at www.gfc.state.ga.us. Weather data is available at both locations for the level of fire danger on any given day.
"I've been here for 23 years and we have never done this," Abbott said. "We've been eating those costs. We're having to finally recoup some of these costs."
Before the fee was instituted Jan. 1, the commission extinguished wildfires on a resident's private property at no charge.
The fire suppression fee can be anywhere from a $90 minimum to thousands of dollars, depending on the type of equipment used, the man-hours needed and the mileage driven to suppress the fire, Abbott said.
"These are only fires that are nonpermitted," Abbott said. "If they have a nonpermitted fire, if they try to burn without a permit and the fire gets away, those are the ones we are going to charge. If you get a permit and the fire gets away, we won't charge you."
Abbott said the state Environmental Protection Division imposed a complete burn ban May through September to protect the ozone layer. But anyone burning in times that aren't included in the ban should first check the weather and fire forecast with the commission. Permits can be obtained the day of the burn. Only vegetative materials such as yard debris, leaves and small limbs are allowed to be burned in a 6-foot-square pile or smaller. In highly populated areas, including neighborhoods, no fire should be started before 10 a.m. and should be extinguished 30 minutes before dark. Residents in more rural areas can burn from 8 a.m. until dark.
"Never leave your fire unattended, always have water and tools nearby and keep your fire manageably small. Never try too much at one time," Abbott said, adding that burning inside containers such as barrels or drums is not recommended. "Have a nice clean open area, keep a low small fire and that would be the best way to do it. It will burn quicker and better."
To get a permit or weather forecast:
Call the Georgia Forestry Commission's Columbia County office at 556-3962 or visit www.gfc.ga.state.us.
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