Douglas County plans to start enforcing regulations on open burning in rural areas more strictly

photo by: Matt Resnick/Journal-World

Robert Bieniecki, the county’s emergency management director, fields questions from Douglas County commissioners on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023. At left: Jillian Rodrigue, the county's emergency management deputy director.

People who violate burn bans in rural Douglas County or don’t notify authorities properly before burning could soon be charged with a misdemeanor for doing so, after county leaders approved changes on Wednesday that will let them enforce open burning rules more strictly.

At their weekly meeting, Douglas County commissioners unanimously voted to modify the regulations for open burning of brush, grass and other materials in the unincorporated areas of the county. Currently, violating open burning rules is already a misdemeanor offense. But Senior Assistant District Attorney Jim Carpenter said he’s unaware of anyone actually being cited for it in Douglas County; that “there was confusion about who could issue tickets”; and that the regulations were “pretty much unenforceable” as written.

photo by: Matt Resnick/Journal-World

Jim Carpenter, Douglas County senior assistant district attorney, discusses the enforcement of open burning regulations on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023.

But Carpenter told commissioners during the meeting that District Attorney Suzanne Valdez “saw the need to actively enforce this ordinance,” and Commission Chair Patrick Kelly agreed. Kelly said “we’ve seen an uptick in fires” and that “it’s really putting stress on our communities’ resources to be able to respond to those.”

The commission’s action on Wednesday updates language in the county’s regulations so that enforcement efforts can begin. But no exact timetable was provided at Wednesday’s meeting for when the county will start enforcing the burn regulations; it could be as early as next spring, but two public notifications are required before the changes can go into effect.

Robert Bieniecki, the county’s emergency management director, said there would be “a significant campaign for education from fire chiefs in the field, as well as social media.”

According to the regulations, people engaging in open burning must first notify the Douglas County Communications Center or the local fire control authority with jurisdiction over the area. They have to provide information about what they will be burning and why, when and where the burn will take place, and how they can be contacted, among other things. They also have to follow safety requirements, such as properly supervising the burn and not creating traffic or airport safety hazards.

If someone breaks the county’s rules or violates a burn ban, the regulations say “any law enforcement officer or fire official of a governmental entity” can take formal action against the person responsible for the burn.

Kelly asked whether people who weren’t aware of the rules would get a warning: “Even if (someone) unknowingly violates this, they don’t immediately get a ticket?”

Bieniecki said that wouldn’t be the case; instead, there’s a three-step process.

The first time a violation happens, according to the regulations, the person will “be provided with verbal and written education” about the rules, or what Bieniecki described as a “conversation.” The second offense is a verbal warning, and on the third offense the person will be issued a citation.

“Even after this goes into effect, the fire chiefs will do a lot of education,” said Jillian Rodrigue, the county’s Emergency Management deputy director. “They’re going to take the time to do the education and make sure that people understand what they’re supposed to be doing.”

For those who violate the rules, Carpenter said that “even when you get to a citation, it’s not going to just turn into punishment.” He said that “most likely, since this will be newly enforced, every single person will be diversion-eligible. So I imagine that everyone will be applying for a diversion.”

That could mean people who are cited would do community service, “restorative justice” or “some other (educational) component to get across the message,” Carpenter said.

In other business, commissioners:

• Approved, as part of their consent agenda, liquor licenses for adult entertainment venues The Flamingo Club and Paradise Saloon.

• Heard a presentation that detailed a three-year performance review of Artists Helping the Homeless.


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