Burton firefighters warn about toxic fires

achristnovich@islandpacket.comAugust 1, 2012 

Garbage burning in Burton is concerning firefighters not only because the fires spread quickly, but they're emitting toxic smoke.

The "situation is becoming dangerous," said a news release Wednesday from Burton Fire District spokesman Dan Byrne.

The Burton district put out at least five such fires in July, in which synthetic materials such as plastic, paint and cardboard were burned, according to Byrne. The thick black smoke from the fires can cause illness, Byrne said.

"They're not healthy when you breathe them in at all," he said, referring to emitted chemicals. "And it's not only what you breathe in. It permeates your clothes. ... It can settle on furniture if the windows are open."

Burning anything other than organic materials, such as yard debris, is now illegal in unincorporated Beaufort County after an ordinance was enacted by County Council in September. The ordinance also prevents burns within 75 feet of a structure. Beaufort, Bluffton and Hilton Head Island have similar ordinances.

The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office has issued only one citation since the ordinance was enacted, according to Sgt. Robin McIntosh. The violator was found guilty in January and fined $55.

Firefighters say the ordinance has been used more as an educational tool than a form of punishment. Firefighters and fire marshals don't have the authority to write citations, so sheriff's deputies or Beaufort County Code Enforcement officers are called when deemed necessary.

Firefighters say they are hesitant to dispatch deputies to punish violators, because many residents are still unfamiliar with the law.

"We're not in the business of penalizing people," Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District spokesman Lee Levesque said. "We just want to keep them safe."

Most often, firefighters will give out pamphlets at a fire scene that explain the ordinance.

Other county fire districts say they haven't had as many toxic fires as Burton has. All districts agree the ordinance has helped reduce the number of calls they receive for smoke nuisances, fires burning too close to homes and unattended fires.

"Overall, our calls have slimmed down from neighbors complaining," Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire Marshal Scott Baldwin said, adding that "99.9 percent" aren't repeat offenders.

Still, Byrne said ordinance enforcement may need to be stiffened, and people need to be aware of the law before they burn.

"Lack of knowledge concerning the ordinance regulations does not excuse you from responsibility and being held liable," he said.

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