Outdoor fires become burning issue in Allegheny County
Backyard fire pits and fireplaces meld the great outdoors with the comforts of home, experts said.
As sales increase, neighbors’ complaints about unwanted smoke and worries about fire hazards also are spreading like wildfire, government officials said.
“(Outdoor fire pits and fireplaces have) become a lot more popular. Because of that, when you have a higher-density neighborhood, you have a lot more complaints and aggravated health effects as well,” said Jim Kelly, air pollution control manager at the Allegheny County Health Department.
Allegheny County’s general ban on open burning dates back to 1970, but the rules could get stricter if the council passes proposed regulations Wednesday.
For several years, municipalities including Whitehall, Baldwin, Richland and Bellevue have enacted open-burning ordinances more stringent than the county’s regulations, which require outdoor burners to be at least 10 feet from the nearest structure, inhabited area or property line and prohibit the burning of trash, leaves or debris.
“Sometimes you have to actually educate (people), and it’s unfortunate to say, but sometimes you have to save people from themselves,” Whitehall police Chief Donald Dolfi said.
New county rules could go beyond or match those of the towns, and if they are stricter, they would take precedence, officials said.
The county’s proposed rules, which were drafted by the Health Department, specify that only clean wood, propane, natural gas, charcoal, fire logs, wood pellets, and paper or commercial smokeless fire starters may be burned. The regulations limit how much clean wood can be burned and state the wood must be burned at least 15 feet from the nearest dwelling or property line.
One reason for the proposed changes was that the existing county rules are hard to enforce. A provision was added to allow the health department to ban or reduce open burning that it determines to be a nuisance, Kelly said.
The changes also were proposed because of complaints from the public.
In 2012, of the 733 air quality complaints the health department received, 134 — or 18.3 percent — were related to open burning, Kelly said. In 2013, 144 — or 27.8 percent — of 518 air quality complaints were related to open burning, he said.
County Councilwoman Sue Means has cited several concerns about the proposal, including no exception for people who already have installed expensive outdoor fire pits and fireplaces that are less than 15 feet from a neighbor’s home, and that only two health department staff members are dedicated to enforcement.
“I think it’s like a zoning issue, and you’re telling people what they can do on their land. And I think it would be better off regulated by the local municipality,” she said.
The health department can issue variances, for instance, if a homeowner can demonstrate that he or she is not causing a nuisance and is following all the other requirements, said Jayme Graham, air quality program manager for the county health department.
Also, any of the health department’s staff could enforce the new rules, she said. Local municipal governments could enforce the regulations, but they are not required to, she said.
Bethel Park doesn’t have a single, comprehensive open-burning ordinance, but relies on rules from several sections of its code, said Jerry Duke, director of community services. The number of complaints over the last year about smoke from backyard fire pits, fireplaces and chimineas prompted the municipality’s council to have staff research what the county and other municipalities were doing to reduce the complaints, Duke said.
Bethel Park has suspended plans to enact tougher sanctions, pending the county vote, Duke said.
Richland has had an open-burning ordinance since 2003, township Manager Dean Bastianini said. In August, however, officials started discussing amending the ordinance because residents were confused by the county and township laws and the township laws were too bureaucratic, he said.
Richland requires outdoor burning devices and locations to be inspected by fire official Guy Pedicone before residents receive free recreational-burning permits.
“We don’t want two sets of regulations. This is a very confusing process to residents and I think having different criteria would just add to the confusion. I think our intent is to mirror the county regulations,” Bastianini said.
Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or [email protected].