Hazy weekend result of permitted burn: officials

It was big and it was smoky, but the huge open fire burning just north of Highway 18 near Mina Drive last weekend was totally legal, authorities said Monday.

There were plenty of calls to North Cowichan to see what was happening, since open burning is supposed to be banned right now, and reception at the municipality had a press release all ready with answers for residents concerned at seeing so much smoke.

This included the information that the people doing the burning had received the applicable approvals, had machines on site, and had notified 9-1-1 and the South End fire department.

“The fire was approved by the Ministry of the Environment, and is exempt from North Cowichan’s bylaw,” Rob Clark, North Cowichan’s local assistant to the fire commissioner, said on Monday. “If you look at our fire bylaw, it says nothing in it restricts or prohibits the following: burning done or a fire set in accordance with federal or provincial regulations. They were following the provincial regulations, which exempted them from our bylaw.

“We did not issue any permits for that burn. It’s my understanding they obtained their burn numbers. They had people out on site to check it all over; everything was fine. It was done through a different agency than ours.”

Donna MacPherson, a fire information officer at the Coastal Fire Centre in Parksville, explained that it was her branch that issued the permit.

“They did get a registration number from us,” she said. “We ask for certain criteria when people want to do a certain type of burn. From our standpoint, it’s about equipment to keep the fire safe and make sure it stays confined. Within the Wildfire Act and regulation, it also specifies they have to comply with the venting index, which is the Ministry of Environment’s interest, because they are in charge of air.”

Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations spokesperson Greig Bethel, said it was “a Category 3 burn, performed on private land, within local fire department jurisdiction, by a logging contractor.”

The contractor registered the burn with the Coastal Fire Centre in Parksville and was then required to comply with the Environmental Management Act and the Open Burning Smoke Control Regulation.

“This helps minimize the amount of smoke that is generated. Burns are only ignited if weather conditions are suitable, to ensure that the fire does not get out of control and does not create excessive smoke,” Bethel said. “Important factors that determine whether a burn will go ahead include the venting index, temperature, humidity and forecast wind activity.”

The venting index is a measure of how quickly smoke will disperse under specific conditions. Burns may only be ignited on days when the forecast for the venting index is “good” or better.

“A burn is ignited and continuously monitored to ensure that the fire does not get out of control,” Bethel added. “In this case, the contractor is responsible for ensuring that the initial burn conditions are favourable and that the fire is extinguished once the burn is completed.”

Despite any precautions, many residents were still aware of the haze.

“I could smell the smoke in the air on May 31 and couldn’t logically hang laundry out to dry, even though the heaviest concentration of smoke was probably one or two kilometres away from my residence,” Bruce Wilkinson said in an email to the Citizen. “I wonder if any citizens who are susceptible to breathing issues had any problems on either of these dates, and if such a massive intrusion on healthy air should be considered acceptable.”

By Monday, there was no further smoke in the air and nothing was left of the piles of debris that had been burned during the weekend; equipment had been used to push the coals together so as to consume the debris completely.