The one agenda item today is a report from Fire Chief Kenn Mount on revisions to the outdoor burning regulations found within Sooke’s Fire Protection Services Bylaw (2007), which is filed on the District's website along with best-practice requirements for your own backyard burns.
Said report is comprehensive -- detailed history of what has been a hot subject locally, a suggested timeline for public feedback this summer on a slate of recommended revisions, an overview of updated provincial regulations and those of other Van Isle municipalities ... plus some of the new science about the health impacts of wood smoke (especially airborne particulate matter, a mostly invisible super-irritant for those with breathing and heart problems. It's the reason a ban on all fires, campfire excepted, until June 15 is part of BC's COVID State of Emergency. For more on health impacts, check these links from the BC Lung Association, Island Health, Health Canada and the World Health Organization).
All in all, the Chief has delivered a solid, well-reasoned document that sets the stage nicely for anyone in town to weigh in on the subject -- via survey and email; public hearings remaining impossible for now, of course -- prior to council debating a formal bylaw revision in the fall. I'm sure one of our discussions today will relate to how we might some day follow the lead of larger communities by eliminating the need for backyard burns altogether via the establishment of a municipal depot where residents could take waste for "chipping, composting and/or grinding" (to quote the report, as I'm doing freely here).
In relative brief, the report notes that the District's approach to backyard burns, campfires and Class A (land clearing) fires has been variously more and less restrictive over the years -- more so in the '00s when residential burns were only allowed one weekend per month (October to April) and had to be kept small (3' x 3'). Revisions made in 2008 banned burn barrels while doubling the width of fire pits. All District residents were allowed to burn dry garden waste (no grass or clippings) on Oct-April days when the Ministry of Environment's BC Ventilation Index was "Good" (as opposed to "Fair" or "Poor").
Things loosened up under Mayor Milne in 2012 when a Burning Regulation Review Committee led by Councillor Haldane opted to give a measure of power back to the people by cutting some shackles: the burn season was extended to include May and backyard fires could happen anytime (sunrise to sunset) during the allowable months; burns were permitted when the Ventilation Index was "Fair"; and folks living outside the sewer-specified area were granted permission to burn even on "Poor" atmospheric days (meaning smoke will linger awaiting the next uptick in wind velocity, the prime measure in the index's rating system). Bottom line: Libertarian burners held sway and won the day.
This is how the regulation stands now. Burning is permitted eight months/230 days a year outside the sewer specified area, and a lesser, Vent Index-conditional number of days within it.
Yet freedom for some is a hassle for others, ever thus, and the revisions are seeking a fair and just-right balance.
Bylaw services and the Fire Department responded to 118 backyard-burning related complaints last year, and many more were phoned in without requiring action. The complaints vary, but many were health related. A new generation of studies have shown that wood smoke is a health hazard, and the science triggered revisions last fall to BC's Open Burning Smoke Control Regulation (which applies to the larger Class A burns). In the process, more densely populated urban/suburban areas (Sooke included as per our freight-train growth) are now rated as a "High Smoke Sensitivity Zone" ~ a category that has nothing to do with cannabis, it should be added for you jesters out there.
During our time together this afternoon, council will discuss the report and delve into the Fire Department's recommendations as a prelude to receiving your own feedback (via survey) in the months ahead. These include:
i) Re-establishing an Oct-April burn season (eliminating May);
ii) The Venting Index must rate as "Good" for burns to happen, and that applies to every household in the District;
iii) Expanded setbacks for burn pits (to 40' from 20') from property lines;
iv) Add a clause that states that the question of whether smoke from a particular burn is an irritant or not (a major cause of feuds between neighbours) is to be determined by responsible District staff;
v) Rather than warnings, more tickets should be written for scofflaws and anyone burning prohibited materials.
Incidentally, we won't be discussing the health issues caused by wood-burning stoves, pellet stoves and fireplaces ~ a good thing for me and many of us in town, at least, since we here chez Bateman do so dearly love and rely on our vintage, airtight Pacific Energy Superseries wood stove to get us through the winters. (In a study conducted a decade ago by the Cowichan Valley Regional District -- where smoke truly does linger without the benefit of our Juan de Fuca winds -- home heating with wood accounted for 23% of fine particulate pollution compared with 53% from open burning. One day this too will likely need to be explored, the Chief's report states.