AMHERST – When Amherst firefighters rolled up to a recent fire call they discovered an abandoned, open blaze burning away on a local home construction site.
“There was no one around. We put it out quickly and luckily there was no damage, but people need to know that open fires like that one are illegal within the Town of Amherst’s boundaries,” fire chief Greg Jones said. “This one was burning right next to some Styrofoam forms. It could have turned out a lot worse.”
Open fires – that’s any outdoor fire with the exception of a barbecue – have been illegal within the town's boundaries since 2002 when the Fires and Burning of Materials Bylaw was passed. Yet, they are still happening with regularity – most recently at construction sites.
“This is the worst year for open fires since I’ve become chief three and a half years ago,” Jones said. “The fire department has responded to 11 of them this year and the police department has responded about every other day.”
The bylaw says no one is permitted to ignite, set fire to or burn any materials, substances whatsoever out of doors within the town.
Jones said the issue is one of safety. People to start them when having a social event, but then the wind comes up – or something else happens – and it gets out of control.
The bylaw means people cannot have fires in a fire pit, chiminea or any other type of outdoor fireplace. Bonfires for burning leaves and other yard waste are also illegal.
There are exceptions. The main one is barbecuing. The bylaw does allow the burning of charcoal or other flammable material when intended only for the purpose of food preparation.
All other exceptions require a special burning permit, which is issued by the chief.
To obtain one, the applicant must outline the number of people who will supervise the burning, the types of materials being burned, when the burn will take place and the location.
The permit also outlines the conditions under which the fire may be set.
“I’ve only issued one permit since I was chief, and they didn’t go ahead with it because they felt it was too onerous,” Jones said.
When an open fire is reported, the police or fire department responds, the fire is extinguished and an investigation begins.
The minimum fine for breaking the bylaw is $100, the maximum is $10,000, “but we try to educate people first,” Jones said. “We only resort to fines when the person setting the fire becomes a repeat offender.”
The town addressed the issue in the summer “and the number of open fires dropped a little, but they’re happening again with regularity,” Jones said.
“I’d really like people to understand that open fires are banned in the town. I’d like them to stop lighting them. The bylaw is in effect to protect the entire community. Fire is fickle and it only takes a minute of inattentiveness to have an uncontrollable fire.”