MORRISBURG – The image of a young family gathered around the campfire on a warm summer’s eve, roasting marshmallows is synonymous with rural life – unless you live in Iroquois, Morrisburg or Williamsburg.

That’s all about to change as South Dundas council moved Tues., July 23 to eliminate the open air burn ban for village residents that had been in place since 1998.

Deputy-Mayor Kirsten Gardner spearheaded the change describing the bylaw as a deterrent for young families considering the area.

“I look at everything through the lens of it attracting young families. I always ask the question, ‘would you want to live here?,’” she said. “If you drive around South Dundas on a Friday or Saturday night, folks are having contained bonfires. In the case of young people, anyone under 50, that’s what they do with their families.”

As the rules currently stand they punish responsible families and cause conflict as neighbours “tell” on each other.

“We’re really punishing our residents and we’re pitting them against each other,” said Gardner. “If somebody wants to burn a couch, then fine them. Hand them a $2,000 fine, but have it have some bite. If you’re that stupid in a residential area, you should have to pay the price on that.”

She was also adamant that rules be in place for proper distances, non-combustible containers and surrounding areas and accepted firewood, while also acknowledging that there are a small percentage of homes where the outdoor space won’t allow a fire.

Director of fire and emergency services, Cameron Morehouse, outlined the policies and bylaws in place in neighbouring townships. While each had various nuances, they all allowed campfires in some form.

Despite what people may believe, fire services does not seek out those that flaunt the rules, but they are obligated to respond if a complaint is made.

“We are complaint driven. We only respond to complaints. We’re not the police. We don’t going around here looking for smoke… There’s burning in our community all the time to be honest with you,” he said. “If it’s a 911 call we have to respond as if its an active [call].”

Councillor Lloyd Wells asked Morehouse if there had ever been an emergency call related to a campfire or recreational fire in the villages in his time as chief since 2016.

“I’m going to say no. Not since I’ve been here. No fires. We’ve dealt with complaints,” he replied.

Asked by councillor Don Lewis if there was ever a fire “greater than it should be,” Morehouse said there were a few, but on-site education normally addressed the problem. If not, the more than $600 fine usually prompted quick compliance.

Mayor Steven Byvelds, who admitted he’s more “cautious” with the bylaw asked if there had been any “issues” this year.

“So far this year we have had none. We’ve had no complaints. Last year we probably had 10 to 12,” said Morehouse.

Potential health concerns for those with respiratory issues was also addressed by Lewis, as his wife is one of those affected.

“I think that we, in one way, are penalizing the citizens of South Dundas. I think if we did a confined fire, I love the idea of an 18 inch by 18 inch [fire]… I really don’t think that would disturb anybody or have any effects on anybody,” he said. “I think with this bylaw we have gone a little too far.”

Councillor Archie Mellan was less than enthusiastic about the change.

“The fact of the matter is that somebody is going to throw crappy wood in there and it’s going to smoke,” he said. “I think we’re opening ourselves up to a lot of complaints from people.”

Wells followed Mellan’s rambling reasons for leaving the bylaw in place with an appropriate response.

“I think councillor Mellan you are blowing it way out of proportion as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “People are going to do it anyway so you may as well make it legit so a neighbour won’t call. I think you’ll see less calls.”

Byvelds was also less than enthusiastic about the change, but would support the move if council was in favour. He did caution that “it could cause problems” and that some older areas could be a high risk.

“All it takes is one spark on an old dry roof and the fun begins,” he said. “I’m willing to let this thing go and after a year or two we’ll see how it all turns out.”

Gardner countered: “I’d much rather have a bylaw where there are rules that people can follow, but you’re not punishing the reasonable respectful people that do it the right way.”

Wells argued they were the only municipality out of line.

“Every one of our neighbours is doing it. We’re not. So what’s that tell you?,” he said.

With the flavour of council in favour of lifting the ban, Morehouse presented a few ideas, including using an online permit system, making the permit valid for a year, mandatory inspections for smaller lots, requiring the permit to be on-site, only allowing clean firewood, specific distance and size restrictions, and not allowing any fires while the burn ban is on.
Gardner suggested this would provide better information to fire services which could create efficiencies.

“It’s pro-active rather than reactive. I think we have a reactive system now where there’s no danger, but we’re still reacting to it. This way you get a pro-active tool.”

Byvelds challenged that the inspections would be too costly and that the people would have to demonstrate a willingness to comply with the rules voluntarily.

“The rules are there. If you’re going to allow the 95 per cent to use common sense, there are the rules. Let’s see what happens,” he said. “I think people are going to have to figure it out themselves. I think after a year or two we’ll figure out if we did the right thing or the wrong thing and we’ll have to tune it up then.”