Our view: Stop open burning on 'red flag' days

A brush fire burns near a pine tree Tuesday near Peace Road and Fairway Drive.[]

On days when the National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning, local officials shouldn’t be asking people to please avoid open burning.

Instead, they should be able to tell them that it is against the law to burn anything outdoors under such conditions. If open burning is seen or reported on those days, officials should have the power to extinguish the fire immediately and warn or cite violators.

This week, the weather service issued red flag warnings on Monday and Tuesday, and the area saw multiple fires, including one that damaged two Sycamore homes, leaving one uninhabitable (the residents were not burning anything at the time).

Another, near DeKalb’s Park 88 industrial park, took firefighters from eight departments hours to extinguish. That fire, which started after a truck went up in flames on Interstate 88, burned about 40 acres and caused an estimated $130,000 in damage.

Despite the concerns about conditions being prime for fire to get out of control, it still was perfectly legal for people to burn landscape waste and other materials if they pleased, provided they did not live in one of the five municipalities that ban open burning, or within 1,000 feet of them.

That creates an unnecessary risk to public safety, one that easily could be avoided with a situational ban on open burning countywide.

Warnings are issued by the weather service when there is a high risk of wildfires, and the alerts can be issued as many as three days in advance. When the danger is imminent, they issue a red flag warning.

This determination is based on wind conditions, including sustained winds of 20 mph or higher, relative humidity of less than 25 percent and dry conditions on the ground.

People should know better than to have an open fire on those days, but without any restriction preventing it, there’s nothing to stop them.

Our area does not experience the catastrophic wildfires we associate with the West, but the land here was meant to burn, and when wildfires start, they can be time-consuming and costly to contain, in addition to endangering homes and businesses.

DeKalb County officials said the county may not have the explicit permission under state law to restrict burning in this way, in which case, state law should be changed to allow such a ban, at least on a county-by-county basis.

The five municipalities that ban open burning of landscape waste – Sycamore, Waterman, Hinckley, Genoa and Maple Park – already have eliminated this problem.

Leaders in other cities, including DeKalb, should consider banning open burning on days when the risk of wildfire is high.