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If you say it’s a recreational fire, you’d better be roasting marshmallows ...

The call that came in to 911 on a Friday evening was logged as a brush fire. But police and firefighters arrived to find a backyard gathering and a disgruntled neighbor. The fire was deemed recreational, not out-of-control and not illegal. The neighbor, one of many close by in the relatively dense neighborhood, said the frequent backyard fires fill his home with smoke odors. He fears the fires are large enough to ignite the tree canopy.Fires that cause a nuisance, whether recreational or to burn brush with a permit, are not allowed under Connecticut state law. But nuisance is a very gray area, according to North Canaan Fire Marshal and Burning Official Daryl Byrne.“It’s really subjective,” Byrne said. “The police are the ones who enforce burning laws. They interpret each situation individually. It’s the same as a complaint about parties and noise. What one person finds annoying may not bother another person.”It’s not so much the size of the fire as what is burned, its proximity to other combustible materials, how it is monitored, the health risk to neighbors and, most importantly, the daily fire index. “No fire is legal when the forest fire index is high,” Byrne said. “That’s the first thing you need to check, whether you’re planning a recreational fire or you have an approved burn permit for brush.”The index is a means of protecting everyone. It is determined by factors that include dryness (based on rain and evaporation), wind speed, temperature and humidity.Burning permits are issued only to town residents and residential property owners. Brush and other vegetation, no more than 3 inches in diameter, are allowed to be burned.“Commercial properties are not allowed to burn because they would be burning materials such as construction debris, including things like treated plywood that contains chemicals,” Byrne explained.For the state Department of Environmental Protection, it is also about air quality. That issue has come into play this past winter, with concerns over particulate matter emitted by outdoor wood furnaces.“It’s also complicated on another level,” Byrne said. “Some towns have local ordinances that parallel state statutes. They usually limit burning to certain times of the day or the year.”Local ordinances can only be more restrictive than state regulations. While air quality testing can be done on furnaces and stoves, it is very difficult to determine the impacts of an open fire. Common sense and consideration need to be part of the equation.What the typical backyard campfire enthusiast needs to know is Smoky Bear kind of common sense and fire safety basics, Byrne said. • A fire needs something to contain it, such as a ring of stones. • A pit should be dug down to virgin soil (fire can be carried underground by decaying matter in planted soil). • A way to extinguish a blaze, such as a garden hose or bucket of sand should be nearby. • Consideration should be given to where sparks may land, such as in woodpiles (which should never be up against a home) and cedar roof shingles.As for what defines a recreational fire, it’s mostly about intent: This is a fire that isn’t intended as a way to burn something. The flames are being used for another purpose, such as cooking.“If the police show up, and you claim it’s a recreational fire, you’d better be roasting marshmallows,” Byrne said.When should the police be called? “Anytime you’re in doubt about the source of a fire. If you see smoke, and you can’t actually see someone tending a fire, even one that seems under control, you should call 911.”Burn permits are issued on the condition that they are used when the forest fire index is acceptable. Approved permits and dates are usually called in, or now entered directly by burning officials into the Litchfield County Dispatch database. Litchfield County Dispatch or LCD is the region’s 911 emergency telephone service.When a call is received about a suspicious fire, police and firefighters are dispatched, and are advised if a permit has been issued for that location. If that is the case, a first responder is usually sent by the local fire department.“It happens a lot, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

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