Observe the burn ban

Published 9:26 pm Monday, May 9, 2016

As Suffolk begins its annual five-month season of open burning bans, citizens can simply check the news to see the dangers that wildfires continue to present for modern society.

The photos and video from Alberta, Canada, are distressing and terrifying. A fire there has spread to more than 600 square miles (an area a third larger than the entire city of Suffolk), displacing all 100,000 residents of the city of Fort McMurray and threatening to move into Saskatchewan before it finally burns out.

Officials in Fort McMurray estimate that 20 percent of the homes there have been destroyed by the fire, which they believe could have been started by a lightning strike in a wilderness area before moving into the city that is at the heart of Canada’s oil sands area, home to the world’s third-largest reserves of oil.

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Officials have said they have no expectation of being able to extinguish the huge conflagration without significant rainfall and lower temperatures across the affected area. That could take months, they say.

A lightning strike started the great fire in the Dismal Swamp in the summer of 2011. That fire, too, burned for more than a month, fed by the flammable peat that lies underground there and largely unabated by the efforts of firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service to control it.

In that case, as in Canada, officials prayed that rain would help put out the fire. But even the passage of Hurricane Irene, which dumped about a foot of rain on the fire, failed to put it out completely. Another fire in the swamp in 2008 burned for more than four months before finally being extinguished.

Against the backdrop of these statistics, Suffolk’s burn ban is now in effect, prohibiting open-air fires of all types in an effort to reduce the risk of wildfire during the hot, dry months ahead.

The open burn ban includes all types of burning, from burning in a barrel to commercial land clearing operations. The use of special incineration devices is also included. In Suffolk, failure to comply with the burn ban can result in a fine of up to $2,500 and one year in jail as well as a bill for extinguishing the fire.

Exceptions to the ban are made for commercial fire pits, fire bowls and chimineas, which are considered recreational fires under the city code. Homeowners using those devices, however, are required to use only firewood, to not leave them unattended and to have some sort of extinguisher available at all times when the fires are burning.

As we pray for rain in Alberta — and with the full recognition that not all fires can be avoided — we must all recognize our own responsibility to limit the dangers to which we subject ourselves and our neighbors. Observe the open-air burn ban, which extends through September. And if you’re using a fire pit during that time, make sure you take the necessary precautions to do so safely.