By Sarah K. Hall
St. Clair Missourian Editor
A St. Clair resident is steamed up about proposed changes to the city’s fire regulations that would allow small backyard fires in city limits.
Gregory Ballard, who lives on Virginia Mines Road, spoke out against the changes at the city’s planning and zoning meeting Monday night.
Ballard lives adjacent to Parkway Village corporate limits, which currently allows outdoor burning.
In general, the city’s fire regulations presently state that “no person shall start, kindle, cause, allow or maintain any form of leaf burning, rubbish or trash burning on public or private property within the city limits . . . Open burning of any materials is strictly prohibited in city limits.”
The amended regulations would contain the exception of allowing a fully contained recreational fire (wood or charcoal only), unless otherwise approved by the board of aldermen as a special event fire, such as the annual bonfire at the St. Clair High School Homecoming event.
“It’s been my experience that when some people are allowed to use backyard fire pits that they will (burn) just about anything they can, including paper, cardboard, Styrofoam, plastic, leaves, sticks, twigs and treated lumber,” Ballard said.
“I went to the store one day and came back home to find my home filled with smoke from my neighbor’s backyard fire pit because I had left my window open to get some fresh air on a beautiful fall afternoon,” he told the board.
On another occasion, Ballard said he awoke to find his car and outside furniture covered in ashes that had floated indiscriminately through the air from a neighbor’s fire.
“Whatever they are burning, you have to deal with it,” he said, “including the smoke and the smell.”
Ballard explained to the board that some lots, like his, are 50 feet or less in width, which puts a home close to a neighbor’s fire.
“The United States Fire Administration said that in less than 30 seconds a fire can get completely out of control,” he said. “That doesn’t give you much time to call the police or the fire department.”
Ballard added that even a small backyard fire can be a health hazard to those nearby.
“According to an article in Scientific American, so-called biparticles, also called particulate matter, are the most dangerous to inhalers of wood smoke,” he said. “They can get into your eyes and respiratory system and cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny noses and illnesses such as bronchitis.
“Fine particles also aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases and have been linked to premature deaths in those already suffering from such afflictions, he added. “As such, the EPA advises that anyone with congestive heart failure, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or asthma should steer clear of wood smoke in general.”
Ballard said that the article also states that children’s exposure to wood smoke should be limited, as their respiratory systems are still developing and they breathe more air and air pollution per pound of body weight than adults. He suggested the city allow other forms of recreational burning.
“There are outdoor gas fire pits that can be used as an alternative for ambiance or making S’mores,” he said.
Must Be Contained
City Inspector Jeremy Crowe said the recreational fires must be contained in a UL approved outdoor pit or fireplace. The pit also must be placed on a noncombustible surface and must be equipped with a spark arrester, spark screen or any other manufactured non-combustible device to prevent spark or ember release into the air or the ground. The fire pits must remain in place at all times.
Homemade fire pits, such as those made of cinder blocks or open fires in yards would not be allowed, unless approved by the building department.
People who want to construct an outdoor fireplace, fire pit, grill, smoker, oven or other fire burning apparatus must present a detailed drawing to the building department in order to obtain a building permit prior to construction.
The building department may at any time prior to, during, or after construction of the device request an engineer’s approval.
According to the ordinance, the city also could request testing of the fire-burning device to ensure safety. The cost for the required testing would be the responsibility of the owner of the device.
As per the proposed amended fire regulations, no more than two fires would be allowed on any property at the same time, unless approved by the board of aldermen as a special event. There also must be at least one person 18 years of age or over present during the burning, and all fires must be put out by 1 a.m.
Fires also may not be built if wind speeds exceed 15 miles per hour. If the wind speeds increase to that speed during a fire, the fire must be put out immediately.
When a fire is burning, people must have a fire extinguisher or other type of extinguishing equipment, such as a garden hose, nearby.
The regulations state that fires must not be offensive to the neighbors or the neighborhood itself.
If complaints are filed regarding a fire, and police determine it to be offensive, the fire must be extinguished immediately. Legal action could be taken against people who fail to comply.
Violators of the regulations could face a minimum fine of $75 for a first offense, plus the cost of debris removal. Second violations within one year would be subject to a $150 fine, while a third offense could bring a fine of at least $300, plus removal.
Each day the dangerous or unsafe condition exists would be considered a separate offense, with $150 added for each day the property owner or fire guardian fails to comply beyond the date affixed for compliance.
There also would be regulations regarding the size of the fire, with piles more than 3 feet in diameter and 2 feet in height prohibited, unless otherwise approved by the board of aldermen.
Burning leaves, trash, treated wood or other types of pollutants also is not permissible. Combustible material cannot be located within 15 feet of any structure and fires cannot be built directly under overhead combustible material, such as a covered wooden porch.
St. Clair Fire Protection District Chief Craig Sullivan said at the planning board meeting last month that the fire department has had an issue in the past with Ballard, who went to the library and found an ordinance established decades ago that stated people could burn natural vegetation or wood 2 inches in diameter or larger.
“As it is right now, within the city limits of St. Clair, if you cut a tree down that’s 30 inches in diameter, and you (light it), it can burn and there’s nothing that can be done with it. Jeremy (Crowe) and I have talked about this multiple times and it needs to be re-evaluated and something put in place,” Sullivan said.
City Administrator Travis Dierker said at that same earlier meeting that he was not aware of the old ordinance, and added that presently, no burning is allowed within city limits.
The planning board, which had tabled the matter last month the amended regulations for further study by board members, once again tabled the matter so board members could gain more of the public’s input at a future public hearing.
“These regulations are going to be controversial, I’m afraid,” Planning and Zoning Chairman John McGlenn said. “So we have to have what we have to have.”