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Burning banned in West Kelowna, but what about all that fuel?

Friday, March 19th, 2010 | 5:45 am

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A West Kelowna Fire Rescue crew mops up after a fire off Hayman Road. (Photo John McDonald)

By John McDonald

After two separate slash fires got away from homeowners making for a busy Wednesday for firefighters, the District of West Kelowna has cancelled a further 95 burning permits already citing dry conditions. But across Okanagan Lake, Kelowna is reacting with a very different view letting another 100 open burning permits continue to reduce that fuel before summer.

West Kelowna Fire Rescue assistant chief Kerry Klonteig said Wednesday’s slash fires weren’t the only reason officials decided to end to the open burning season but they sure helped.

“They had some influence, but we’ve had a number of calls over the last few weeks about fires getting out of hand, so we made the decision that unless conditions change, to suspend open burning for the spring,” he said.

Klonteig said the premature end to burning season leaves 95 valid permits outstanding, and he expects some complaints from permit holders. “Most of them have been pretty good, but I’m sure we’ll hear about it,” he predicted.

Meanwhile, over in Kelowna, Fire Chief Rene Blanleil of the Kelowna Fire Department, faced with similar conditions, has decided to continue the open burning season, albeit with sharply increased vigilance and scrutiny of new open fire applications.

“We’re going to be monitoring the situation very closely now, obviously, with West Kelowna ceasing open burning,” said Blanleil. “Depending on conditions, that may change at a moment’s notice.”

Kelowna has about 100 outstanding open burning permits, but has yet to see any slash piles burn out of control, Blanleil said.

Both officials are aware that any piles that haven’t been burned off will turn into very dry piles in the summer, potential fuel for a lightning or human-caused fire when the possibility of it spreading out of control is much higher. “It’s a bit of a double-edged sword,” Klonteig admitted.

Both also point to a recent requirement for the venting index to be higher than before when allowing outside burning. The index is a number that indicates the ability of the atmosphere to disperse airborne pollutants, such as smoke from a outdoor fire.

Both Klonteig and Blanleil say that the requirement for a higher venting index value has effectively reduced the open burning season to just a few months in the spring, even though it ostensibly runs from Oct. 1 to April 30.

“Typically we don’t get burning days until the weather clears up in late winter, early spring,” Klonteig said.

“What this means is that there are far fewer days to accomplish open burning,” added Blanleil.

The Kelowna Fire Chief said he doesn’t disagree with the decision made by his counterparts on the other side of the lake. “Obviously, it was part and parcel with the fires yesterday,” he said.

While both fires were promptly put out, gusting winds made one of them potentially serious.

A fire on Pettman Road was classed as rank one, climbing into trees and burning ladder fuels, spreading quickly up the steep slope behind the last row of houses in the subdivision. Klonteig said it could have been worse if West Kelowna Fire Rescue crews had not got onto it as quickly as they did.

The Hayman Road fire was less serious, spreading from a slash pile on top of a knoll behind the winery’s orchard.

Klonteig said West Kelowna is so far the only community to suspend the open burning season.

“Typically it’s done on a regional basis, but as fire chiefs, we can change that at any time, if we feel safety could be affected,” he said. “If we approved another permit and it got away again, we’re putting people at risk. For everybody’s safety, we decided to shut it down.”

john@kelowna.com

250-575-0521

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