Spallumcheen’s open burning bylaw ignites debate

Grey areas surface in bylaw after township bills property owner for open burning infraction during open burning season...

A match may be put to Spallumcheen’s current open burning notice.

Some grey areas in the notice have surfaced in the wake of an open burning incident where a property owner received a $2,000-plus bill after the Armstrong Spallumcheen Fire Department was called to a report of a forest fire on Gulch Road on Oct. 21, 2011.

The bill was then voluntarily reduced by 50 per cent to $1,011 by the fire department. But after Joe Clemson complained that the bill was unjustified, and after debate over two meetings, council voted by a margin of 3-2 to give Clemson a bylaw infraction fine of $200.

“I really don’t think it has anything to do with the notice,” said Spallumcheen Mayor Janice Brown who, along with Coun. Joe Van Tienhoven voted against charging Clemson a $200 fine.

“We’re taking the blame for somebody else’s mistake.”

Open burning season in the township permits  farmers and orchardists to burn materials without a permit from Oct. 1 to April 15.

On Oct. 21, 2011, Clemson lit five large piles of wood waste and other rubbish on his property, saying in a letter he was “in the process of improving this land to the point of earning enough to maintain farm status.” The subsequent large flames resulted in the 9-1-1 call about a forest fire to the fire department.

The township’s notice states residents can burn permitted materials “that do not constitute clearing of vegetation to help prepare the land for a different use.”

However, Armstrong Spallumcheen fire inspector, and deputy fire chief, Alastair Crick told council his interpretation of the scene was a change in land use, which is contrary to the bylaw.

“It was going from forestry to farming, and the bylaw says you cannot burn projects off the land for the change of land use,” said Crick.

There were other concerns for the fire department. The fires were close to the treeline, and there was worry about embers spreading to the trees and neighbouring properties.

Clemson also wasn’t present at the fires – he was having dinner at his home on the property,  said Crick – and he did not have a permit or equipment and water sources to manage the fires.

Clemson said in his letter he was told by township staff that it was open burning season and he didn’t need a permit, and that the township office didn’t have any permits to give out.

The bill was issued for having the fire department spend three hours at the scene, which included dousing two of the piles with water, and for having its equipment on-site.

Coun. Christine Fraser led the discussion about changing the township’s burning notice.

“I keep looking at the notice and it doesn’t say you have to be at the site,” said Fraser who was joined by Coun. Todd York in suggesting the notice has a lot of ambiguity.

However, Van Tienhoven said the bylaw is quite clear.

“It says right in it every person who starts a fire shall place a competent person at all times in charge of such fire while the same is burning/smoldering until the fire is completely extinguished,” said Van Tienhoven.

“You don’t light five large piles and then go and have dinner. Whether there’s a notice or not, that’s just common sense.”

Crick said, when asked, that the bylaw should be revisited, but it’s up to council to make that a priority.

Fraser, York and Andrew Casson voted in favour of eliminating the bill and charging the $200 bylaw fine.

Councillors Rachael Ganson and Ed Hanoski were absent from the meeting.