Despite ban, open burns still plague firefighters

GRANTS PASS — A property owner outside Ruch in the upper Applegate Valley lit a pile of limbs and vegetation on fire Tuesday afternoon. It's a common practice to get rid of clippings, pruned branches and other vegetation.

But wait.

Debris burns can start wildfires. The Oregon Department of Forestry bans them every year when fire season starts, usually around the first of June.

This year fire season began on June 4.


"We've had 10 or 11 in one day," said the ODF's Shelly Hoffer, referring to runaway debris burns. "We'll get burns that escape and burn up to a quarter-acre."

ODF responded to open illegal open burns in Kerby and Wolf Creek on Wednesday.

The incident in Ruch burned nearly an acre and brought firefighters from the Applegate and Jacksonville fire districts, along with the ODF, said Melissa Cano, ODF spokesperson in Medford.

The property owner may be receiving a citation in the mail that will likely cost them $110. The citations can be as high as $435, the ODF said.

Usually, property owners get a warning unless they're a repeat offender.

"Typically, we try to educate the public. Most of the time it's going to be a warning," said Tyler McCarty, Grants Pass Unit forester for the ODF.

McCarty said last weekend people got a false sense of security because of cool, moist weather. When the start of the fire season was called on June 4, the temperature had already climbed over 100 once and above 90 a few more times.

"We can only look into the future so far with the forecast," McCarty said. "Sometimes rain comes in. People may be safe that day, but it may burn for several days and start up again."

More heat is on the way, with temperatures predicted to reach into the 90s this weekend.

"It only takes one warm, dry or windy day to drive down fuel moisture to a point where grass and other fine fuels will readily carry fire," said Lee Winslow, ODF Southwest assistant district forester. "This is why debris burning remains prohibited."

Escaped debris burns contributed to 14 of the 35 wildfires in Jackson and Josephine counties this year, Cano said. Many of those were before fire season started, when debris burns were legal.

But even then, landowners need to use caution. An escaped burn on South Side Road in the Murphy area in May burned a quarter-acre and crossed property lines.

The property owner now could be charged for fire suppression costs — even sued, Hoffer said.

"That guy did get a ticket," she said. "And if the fire crosses property lines, whoever owns that property can sue you for damages."

Yard waste tips

While outdoor burning is no longer allowed, the Oregon Department of Forestry is asking residents to ensure that they are prepared for wildfires by maintaining a minimum of 100 feet of defensible space around every home and building on their property.

Here are some tips on how to dispose of yard waste without burning:

• Chipping

• Composting/Mulching

• Curbside Pickup

• Greenwaste Facility

• Biomass Energy Facility

Need more info?

For more information about the Oregon Department of Forestry's fire season restrictions and regulations, or to report a fire, call or visit the Southwest Oregon District unit office nearest to you:

• Grants Pass Unit, 5375 Monument Dr., Grants Pass. (541) 474-3152

• Medford Unit, 5286 Table Rock Rd., Central Point. (541) 664-3328

Fire season information is also available online at the ODF Facebook page: @ODFSouthwest and the website:

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