The Town of Hilton Head Island should ban residential burning of yard waste, its Fire & Rescue Division chief said Thursday.
Open burning is allowed on parts of the island with a permit, but the rules are routinely broken and the practice causes safety and health risks, Chief Lavarn Lucas told the Town Council's Public Safety Committee.
But open burning is deeply connected to the rural heritage of many native islanders, according to Ward 1 Town Councilman Marc Grant, who opposes the chief's recommendation.
"In Ward 1, we have many people who continue to do small burnings, and we do understand the risks," Grant said. "But my constituency believes that it is a way of life."
He said they burn yard waste because they cannot haul it away or afford to hire someone to do it for them.
"There are a whole lot of laws in this country that are intended to change an accepted cultural practice because it is dangerous," Lucas replied. He said health hazards from smoke that lingers in neighborhoods pose a bigger problem.
"It does seem odd to many people that we can ban smoking in a restaurant because secondhand smoke is bad for you, yet we will allow several neighborhoods to be completely blanketed in smoke all night long because of these fires that are burning," Lucas added.
Wildfires are a threat, as well, because of the town's many dead-end roads and neighborhoods with limited entrances and exits, Lucas contended.
Many gated communities prohibit open burning, but it is legal on nearly a third of the island during daylight hours, with a permit from the Fire & Rescue Division.
However, the rules are "habitually violated" by most burners, Lucas said.
He showed photos at the meeting of unsupervised and unpermitted burnings of garbage and tires he witnessed in the Muddy Creek area more than a year ago.
His department could enforce the rules more aggressively, but it would "put the officers in more difficult and dangerous positions" when disputes with property owners arise, Lucas said.
The division issues warnings for first offenses, then $1,000 citations for each subsequent violation.
The ban would not affect recreational burns like campfires or oyster roasts, according to Lucas.
Councilmen Bill Harkins and John McCann, who sit on the committee, support the ban.
"I think this is one of those situations where the good of the whole should be a guiding factor in the decision-making," Harkins said. He added that the safety of those starting the fires and living near them "trumps the cultural mores."
The committee reviewed 20 recommendations from the Fire & Rescue Division's 2013 strategic plan Thursday but took no votes.
No members seemed to support a recommendation to purchase a fire-rescue boat. Earlier this week, the committee reviewed the plan's first 34 suggestions.
The Fire & Rescue Division will revise the plan, and the committee likely will pass it on to the full council on Monday. The council could then approve or strike specific recommendations, probably at its Feb. 19 meeting.