The rules for outdoor burning in the San Lorenzo Valley were made more strict last week thanks to changes approved by the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District board of directors.
The new rules — officially Rule 438 — will affect all homes within the district’s jurisdiction in Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties.
As part of the rule, those lighting backyard waste fires must obtain a district-issue smoke management permit.
Fires must also be at least 100 feet from any structure, though residents may obtain a waiver if the site is deemed safe by an inspector.
Outdoor waste fires are also banned on parcels smaller than a half-acre, except for areas not served by, or inaccessible to, waste pickup services and those parcels that have passed an in-person inspection.
In the San Lorenzo Valley, rules will be even tighter.
The valley has been designated a Smoke Sensitive Area in Rule 438 — a response to the potentially hazardous levels of smoke in the air detected by district sensors during the previous winter. The valley-specific rules are largely stricter versions of the district-wide regulations, and call for a ban on all outdoor fires on parcels smaller than one acre, though exceptions are available for properties not served by, or inaccessible to, waste pickup services.
The area within the SSA will also be divided into five designated districts with no more than four outdoor burn permits issued per day, per district. The districts include Felton, Ben Lomond, Brookdale, Boulder Creek, and the Zayante areas. Bonny Doon is not included in the SSA.
According to Deputy Air Pollution Control Officer Mike Gilroy, there were only two changes to the plan from its original proposal.
First, the normal burn season schedule of Dec. 1 through April 30 will remain in place, rather than adding 15 burn days on either end.
Second, Gilroy said, the original proposal was to issue two permits per day, per district within the Smoke Sensitive Area.
“The public comment we got was used to modify the proposed rules,” Gilroy said. “We felt that we could accommodate a minor increase in the number of burns — it’s still a great reduction.”
Another concern, Gilroy said, was in regard to the permit process, as all outdoor waste disposal fires now require a permit.
“When you say ‘permit system,’ many people think of their experience with the DMV or planning department,” he said. “Our permit system is really not like either of those experiences.”
The permits will be free of charge for the immediate future and only available through the district and its website.
Gilroy explained that the district views the permits as a way to track smoke.
“It’s really meant to be more of a tracking system to allow us to know where burns are taking place, rather than what or how much is being burned,” Gilroy said.
Education and enforcement
The district will focus on outreach and education regarding the rules over the course of the first season, rather than ticketing scofflaws, Gilroy said.
For rules that were approved in previous years, however, the district will likely not be as lenient, he said.
“Basically, we’re going to give some flexibility on the new rules, but the pre-existing rules we’re going to enforce,” he said. “Everything will be a case-by-case — last year, we did not issue tickets for people burning piled leaves and needles.”
Gilroy said that the district is planning an open house event in Felton during late October to further explain the new rules, while a meeting Sept. 26 in Monterey would explain the air district’s role in supporting the rules.
Zayante Fire Chief John Stipes said that he hoped the Sept. 26 meeting would clear up some concerns he had regarding the new regulations.
“We’re getting kind of thrown in the middle of it,” Stipes said, adding that the fire district has received several calls from residents confused as to the changing burning rules. “It’s more of an air pollution thing than a fire thing.”
Stipes added that he was skeptical of the air district’s ability to effectively enforce the new rules in such a rural and widespread area.
“It’s kind of early for me to tell,” he said. “I just don’t see them as having the manpower needed to do all this stuff in the new rules.”
But so far, Gilroy said, every resident he’d spoken to was cooperative and aware of the issue created by excess smoke.
“We’ve not had anyone tell us there’s not an air quality problem up there,” he said.
Gilroy said district inspectors would be in the field nearly seven days a week, and that the district’s smoke complaint line would be manned, including weekends.
“Last year, we stepped up our presence, and we issued letters to people who were burning improperly or creating excess smoke,” he said.
Gilroy encouraged residents to be vigilant for smoke hazards from backyard burns, and to report excessive smoke to the district — not the fire department — if they were being affected.
“(Call the district) if you’re observing a backyard burn and don’t observe a lot of flame,” Gilroy said.
Stipes said he intended to make it clear at the Sept. 26 meeting that his fire district would not be pressed into service as air quality patrol and enforcement officers.
“We don’t have the manpower or the finances to do that,” he said.
Gilroy said that the fire districts’ roles would be largely unchanged by the new rules, and — if all goes according to plan — the regulations would reduce calls to fire districts for smoke from backyard burns.
“The new rule is intended to meet the interest of air quality and fire safety,” he said. “The fire districts are expected to continue with their current roles — they will not be issuing permits.”
For information: www.mbuapcd.org or 647-9411.