Columbia County residents have one more week to burn their yard debris.
Saturday marks the beginning of a five-month ban on residential and commercial burning for the sixth consecutive year.
The outdoor-burning ban, instituted by the Georgia Envi-ronmental Protection Division to improve air quality during smog season, will extend through September.
The ban affects 54 counties that are influenced by the air quality of the metro Atlanta area, including Columbia and Richmond counties. It prevents residents from burning yard debris, including leaves, limbs and pine straw.
The Atlanta area, along with Macon and the Georgia area near Chattanooga, are considered "non-attainment" zones, meaning the air quality does not meet federal health standards and can be harmful to breathe.
"We're staying stable," said Chief Ranger Steve Abbott, who leads the Georgia Forestry Commission's Columbia County and Richmond County office, of the Augusta area's air quality.
Warmer months are considered smog season because volatile organic compounds from fuel, paint, solvent and vegetation fumes, and nitrogen oxides formed during burning react in the presence of sunlight, forming smog.
High levels of smog, also called ground-level ozone, can most affect the elderly, the very young and those with asthma or breathing problems.
The ban is intended to help keep ozone levels down, Abbott said.
Even when the ban is not in effect, a permit is required to burn yard debris. During the 2009 burn season, Abbott said, his forestry office issued more than 9,000 permits.
"We appreciate the people that do the right things," Abbott said. "The local forestry guys appreciate those that get the permits, maintain their fires and do a good job managing their smoke."
Ban or not, if smoke bothers anyone nearby, the resident doing the burning will be asked to extinguish the fire.
In 2009, Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue personnel responded to 158 complaints of unauthorized outdoor burning, according to fire department records.
During the ban, not all burning is outlawed. Bona fide agricultural burning, prescribed burning by foresters, training burns and small cooking fires will be allowed, Abbott said.
Abbott said alternatives to burning lawn debris exist.
"Composting, mulching, hauling it to an approved site" or waiting until next burn season are other options, Abbott said.
During the 2009 ban, the fire department responded to 53 outdoor burning complaints. Firefighters will respond to any complaint and explain the law to those burning illegally and ask them to extinguish the fire.
Those caught burning illegally will be given a citation for unlawful burning and can receive up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, according to the Magistrate Court of Columbia County.
Abbott said if an unauthorized outdoor fire gets out of control and the fire department of forestry personnel are called in to assist, the homeowner could be liable for the costs of supplies and labor used to extinguish the fire.
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