A bill that’s passed in the Oklahoma house would make it legal for some large land owners to perform prescribed burns on their property, even when a burn ban is in effect.
That has some fire departments concerned lives and property could be put at unnecessary risk. But the author of the bill said it’s simply intended to streamline Oklahoma’s two types of burn bans - governor-issued and county-issued.
Washington County Emergency Manager Kary Cox, a former rancher himself, said prescribed burns, in the right conditions, can be greatly beneficial.
“Get rid of the undesirables and promote the growth of your desirables, these burning operations become extremely important to the producers,” he said.
On the ‘perfect weather day’ anyone can burn their land, but during a county-issued ban, it’s illegal. House Bill 2646 would change that, giving agriculture producers the freedom to conduct a prescribed burn even if a county-issued ban is in place.
“It could very well increase the threat and the hazard to firefighters, and to other landowners, if somebody were to ignore that county burn ban and go out and do a prescribed burn and have that get out of control,” Cox said.
Representative Kevin Wallace said there are some misunderstandings about the bill. He said it’s only meant for agriculture producers with a prescribed burn plan - one that must follow strict guidelines laid out by state statute, the Forestry Department and the Department of Agriculture.
“You have to take in weather, which is temperature, wind speeds, humidity. It’s safest time,” Wallace said. “It’s not just an average guy that’s just gonna go out there on Saturday and Sunday and have a burn. It’s a process, a plan, a management tool that has been worked on for months prior to ever having the burn.”
But Cox said the bill isn’t clear about what landowners are considered agricultural producers and worries that could lead to trouble.
“You could probably make that argument if you own a 10-acre lot in the country, with your house on it and you wanted to burn your farm off around your house,” Cox said.
Wallace said landowners would be required to have all the manpower and equipment to put the fire out. They would also be required to notify the local fire agencies and neighbors.
He said ag producers already have prescribed burn exemptions when it comes to state-issued burn bans.
“Agriculture is an important part of the state economy, it’s a number two driver, actually, and range and land management is very important,” Wallace said.
The problem with county-issued bans, Wallace said, is they’re in effect for 30 days. Wallace wants that number scaled back to 14 days.
“At 30 days, sometimes…say, day 20 it might rain and day 22 might be a perfect time to have and conduct a prescribed burn,” Wallace said.
But Cox said, in that situation, counties already have it set up so landowners can request prescribed burn exemptions on a county level.
“From our perspective, from the fire department’s perspective, we do not see a benefit in it. We see that we’re losing beneficial tools,” Cox said. “It's just not a good idea and it's not very smart in my opinion.”
There’s also the worry that after one good burn day, conditions will worsen again, causing a planned fire to burn out of control. A situation firefighters and rural landowners deal with during fire season, whether a ban is issued or not.
That was the case Friday near Ochelata; as volunteer firefighters put up a front to save a rural property, the homeowner looked on, hoping for the best.
“You think, 'how bad's it gonna be?' You hope it don't get your house,” Kerry Williams said.
Firefighters were able save Williams’ home.
“I'm relieved now,” he said. “They do an excellent job.”
The fire is believed to have started as a planned burn Thursday, but kicked back up in the strong winds Friday, turning it into an out of control grass fire.
House Bill 2646 is now on the Senate floor.