Hilton Head Fire & Rescue Division to increase enforcement of burning regulations

bheffernan@islandpacket.comMarch 6, 2013 

  • Hilton Head Island Town Council has authorized the Fire & Rescue Division to begin searching for an off-island hurricane evacuation site to house the division's staff and equipment. The ideal site would be an existing building within 40 miles of the island that could be retrofitted to withstand a Category 5 hurricane and could be shared with public service districts and other local governments willing to assist in its funding and operations.

    Currently, for Category 1, 2, and some Category 3 hurricanes, the division would evacuate to the University of South Carolina Beaufort's campus near Hardeeville, which is overcrowded and in one of the largest swamps in the state, among other problems, according to Fire Chief Lavarn Lucas. For more severe storms, the division would have to evacuate more than 90 miles away to Barnwell.

Hilton Head Island Town Council wants the fire chief to crack down on residents who violate open-burning regulations and to evaluate whether the island needs an outright ban of residential burning of yard waste.

Open burning is allowed with a permit in some parts of town, but the rules are routinely broken, and it poses health and safety risks to neighbors, according to Lavarn Lucas, chief of the Town of Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division.

Lucas said the division will increase enforcement by issuing warnings to property owners who break the rules. But Lucas said the division would likely not bring a burn-ordinance recommendation to Town Council until 2014.

The division's 2013 strategic plan had originally called for a ban on residential burning of yard waste, but Town Council members disagreed Tuesday on whether that is needed. Many said they wanted more information before making a decision. The proposed ban would not affect recreational uses like campfires or oyster roasts, Lucas said.

Enforcing existing rules would better solve the problem, said Councilman Marc Grant, whose Ward 1 has many neighborhoods where burning yard waste is allowed. He also said neighbors should communicate more with one another to work out problems themselves.

"I just think that we need to stop focusing on creating new laws and regulations ... and look at how we can create compromises," Grant said. "Let's not create a law for every little thing."

Grant said burning lawn debris is a common practice for many who have grown up in rural Lowcountry areas.

"There are areas on the island where people have been burning yard debris forever and ever," said Mayor Drew Laughlin, who lives in the Spanish Wells neighborhood and said he occasionally burns yard debris.

Laughlin said he finds the fire chief's health and safety concerns persuasive, but some residents are unable to haul away debris, and hiring someone to do it can be too expensive for them.

Councilman Bill Harkins, who favors the ban, said allowing property owners to burn yard waste goes against Hilton Head's image as an environmentally sensitive community.

Residential burning of yard waste is already banned in many gated communities but is allowed on about a third of the island during daylight hours for two weeks a month with a permit from the division.

"I think we look a bit foolish if we allow it here, but don't allow it there," Harkins said Tuesday. "I prefer to have it banned throughout the entire community."

Some residents say burning has become a nuisance.

"There are many times we are unable to come outside to even walk our dog because of the smoke," Denise Stringer told council Tuesday. Stringer lives in Spanish Pointe, where burning is not allowed, but smoke drifts into it, she said.

The division has issued 37 warnings since the beginning of 2012, according to Fire Marshal Joheida Fister. A second violation would result in a fine of about $1,000. No fines or second violations have been issued so far, Fister said.

The warnings have helped recently in getting some to comply with the rules, but it's too soon to determine the enforcement's long-term effectiveness, Lucas said. Increasing enforcement could put the unarmed firefighters in difficult positions, he said. It also would likely require overtime pay for fire inspectors, the fire marshal or town code-enforcement officers to work on nights and weekends when citations would need to be issued, Lucas said.

Related content:

Hilton Head fire chief calls for ban on open burning, Jan. 31, 2013

Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue gives list of suggestions to Town, Jan. 7, 2013

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