McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

March 5, 2014

Commissioners stand by law on burnban

By Jeanne LeFlore
Staff Writer

McALESTER — A recent decision by Pittsburg County commissioners to vote against a countywide burn ban was based on a law brought to their attention the Oklahoma Department of Forestry, according to Kevin Enloe, director of Pittsburg County Emergency Management.

“The forestry department suggested what the law stated, so we looked at the law,” Enloe said Wednesday.

“There is still some on-going discussion.”

At last week’s weekly meeting, commissioners denied a burn ban requested for the county by 27 fire departments, citing a law signed a year ago by Gov. Mary Fallin. They said the law modified the definition of “extreme fire dangers” under state forestry service guidelines.

This week, District 2 Pittsburg County Commissioner Kevin Smith confirmed that commissioners had spoken with the forestry service and they were discussing the details of the law.

Forester Craig Marquardt told the News-Capital he visited with the commissioners recently in an attempt to get an exception to burn bans for prescribed forestry burns. He said the prescribed burns are needed for landowners who need to meet land management requirements.

“The landowners pay us a fee and we provide a service ... We have the right people for it,” Marquardt said, referring to services provided to burn managed land.

“We’ve had questions challenging the burn ban, and that’s when I pointed out the law.”

He said the ideal situations for a prescribed burn are usually at the same time there is a burn ban.

According to the law, county commissioners declaring a burn ban must first declare the existence of extreme fire danger. Under the law, that danger means severe drought conditions must exist as determined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and no more than a half-inch of precipitation is forecast for the next three days according to the National Weather Service.

While Pittsburg County commissioners were apparently following the law in refusing last week’s request, 14 other counties in the state — including adjacent Latimer County — did declare the burn ban, Marquardt said.

Meanwhile, Fallin’s office said the law she signed makes it easier, not harder, to declare a burn ban. In an email from Fallin’s press secretary Michael McNutt, he said House Bill 1762 was passed by lawmakers and signed into law last year by the governor.

The law “does indeed change the definition of fire danger,” McNutt said in the email. “But the measure made it easier, not harder, for a board of county commissioners to declare a period of extreme fire danger. The measure modifies the definition of ‘extreme fire danger’ to include either dire occurrence is significantly greater than normal or more than 20 percent of the wildfires in the county have been caused by escaped debris or controlled burning.”

Enloe, the local emergency management officer, said that’s where the discrepancy begins.

“We sometimes have that 20 percent,” he said, referring to causes of wildfires.

“That’s what we are still trying to work out.

“It’s very frustrating. We have the ranchers who need to burn and we have the fire departments who want to have the burn ban to protect their communities.”

Contact Jeanne LeFlore at jleflore@mcalesternews.com.