by Matthew Uhrig
Press staff

WINCHESTER – A full house of farmers looked on from the public gallery Tues., May 9 as Township of North Dundas politicians heard what could be included in the bylaw set to schedule open air burning in the municipality.

It is most certainly the year’s most hotly contested legislation, which was first brought to council in March by the township’s fire commissioner, Councillor Al Armstrong, on behalf of North Dundas’ four fire stations.

The Fire Steering Committee is calling for a ban on the burning of agricultural brush piles between May 1 and Oct. 31 each year.

A number of factors have been presented to backup the committee’s request, including the fact that open air burning has traditionally ranked in the top three response types for North Dundas firefighters. However, in 2016, it jumped to the number one position with 33 total calls.

Of that, not every occasion would be considered an emergency, but when a call comes in, detachments must respond. To rollout the vehicles can cost upwards of $1,500 per hour – a total paid by taxpayers.

There has also been an increase in the number of smoke and ash complaints, and an increased risk in fires spreading when a handful of large piles are burning at the same time.

Armstrong has said more than once that the issue is “multi-faceted.”

Namely, the number of complaints appears to be keeping pace with the increased level of clear-cutting in the region.

It has also led to an uptick in the number of 911 calls from passersby who believe they’ve spotted a large blaze – although they are often short on information, specifically the exact location of the fire.

More often than not, the fire is backed by an approved burn permit, and is under control. Responding to these calls, Councillor Tony Fraser said, puts increased strain on the volunteer fire service during the summer months when stations are short on manpower due to holidays.

The agricultural community has been in an understandable uproar since the Winchester Press first reported word of the planned bylaw. Local organizations, including the Dundas Federation of Agriculture and the Dundas Soil and Crop Improvement Association, have chastised North Dundas for being heavy-handed in its approach, while individual farmers have publicly criticized township councillors and staff, and firefighters.

No matter, it appears likely that some form of the bylaw will be passed later this month. The township’s fire chiefs were in attendance at the May 9 meeting, and each has given the plan full support.

Chesterville fire chief Mike Gruich said there is a lot of “risk assessment” done after calls, and responding to unnecessary fire calls is beginning to take away from other aspects of the emergency service.

“The calls do affect our travel times and turnouts… They are taking away from our response times,” he said.

Added Fraser: “In some cases, it is putting our vehicles and equipment in precarious situations. It is a safety aspect, and we want to prevent the spread and manage something that has knowingly been set.”

The bylaw’s approval is anticipated later this year, but enactment won’t take place until 2018.