Tonasket-area woman fined for burn barrel fire that caused 2009 wildfire

YAKIMA – The Washington Department of Ecology has issued a fine of $6,500 to Tonasket-area resident Ardith Law for a burn barrel fire that escaped, causing a larger wildfire requiring response from area firefighters.

Burn barrels are illegal in the state of Washington, as is burning prohibited materials such as household garbage, plastics and cans.

On Oct. 7, 2009, Washington Department of Natural Resources and local firefighters responded to the blaze about 7 miles north of Tonasket near Pickens Mountain. At the time of the fire, landowner Law told a DNR fire investigator that she had left the burn barrel unattended, and flames from the fire spread to a quarter-acre of land.

The agency turned the investigation over to Ecology, which has enforcement jurisdiction over illegal outdoor burning in the state.

Law has 30 days after receiving the notice of penalty to pay the fine or to file an appeal with the Pollution Control Hearings Board. Officials note this is the second blaze from an unattended burn barrel at the Law property requiring a response by wild land firefighters. The earlier fire, known as Pickens fire, resulted in more than 2,000 acres burning on Pickens Mountain on July 23, 2002.

“More than 21 fires a year are started by escaped outdoor burning in Okanogan County,” said Guy Gifford, fire prevention forester for DNR. “It’s the number one human cause of wildfires in the county.”

According to the DNR, the cost to suppress the 2002 fire came in at nearly $895,000. Property owners paid $62,800 in a settlement arbitrated through the Attorney General’s Office. DNR is seeking $1,310 reimbursement for the cost to fight the 2009 fire.

Sue Billings, an air quality manager for Ecology in Yakima, said, “It’s clear such fires are costly, not only in terms of human health, but also in terms of property loss and the expense to responding firefighters. We hope this very real threat will cause folks to stop using burn barrels and never leave their fires unattended.”

Billings urges people to burn only natural vegetation and do so only when and where it is allowed. And to keep fires small and always have fire suppression materials at hand. Gifford reminds folks to put a fire trail around their burn piles, and call 1-800-323-BURN to report any wildfires.

Okanogan County residents can swap their empty burn barrels through Friday, Sept. 3, 2010, at the county’s central landfill. The landfill is located at 241 B&O Road North, Okanogan. Burn barrels can be exchanged between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, while supplies of compost bins last. For information, call (509) 422-2602.