Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias It's a sorry state of affairs, some people may argue, when the government has to consider passing laws to protect people from their own stupidity.

That's just what Clay County is facing, however.

The county commission finds itself dealing with a combination of a mild winter, months of dry weather and, in some cases, a pure lack of common sense on the part of some property owners.

It may draft an ordinance that would allow it to declare periods of emergency during which deliberately set outdoor fires would be strictly controlled and, perhaps in some cases, prohibited.

The sooner the ordinance is passed, the better.

Yes, April arrives tomorrow. Farmers are gearing up for this spring's planting season.

We're getting to the tail end of the time when property owners rely on deliberately-set fires to clear brush and dead grass from fence lines and fields.

This year, however, could be different than other years.

Last April, it rained constantly. In contrast, if the weather patterns of the last winter continue through this spring and summer, Clay County will be very, very dry.

Combine heat and drought and the danger for wildfires, even in our part of the state, where man has done his best to tame the prairie, will be significant.

In response to a recent outbreak of grass fires across eastern South Dakota, a number of counties, including Douglas, Charles Mix and Davison, passed resolutions to ban burning for a certain period of time.

Vermillion Fire Chief Doug Brunick and Wakonda Fire Chief Mike Pollman appeared before the Clay County Commission this week, urging it to consider adding a fire ordinance to its books.

The ordinance would allow Clay County to do what many counties already have done.

It would allow Clay County to approve a resolution declaring a fire emergency and enact certain prohibitions on burning.

Anyone caught in violation could face a variety of penalties, ranging from a monetary fine to compensation of the costs incurred by fire departments.

The Davison County Commission unanimously passed a fire danger emergency resolution recently when the Mitchell area was being plagued by grass fires.

The resolution reminded people of state burning laws when it comes to CRP fields, unharvested row crops, crop residue and grass lands.

The resolution stated that "all open burning in the (county), excluding fires within properly constructed barrels that are equipped with screens to prevent flying brands, cooking fires, and attended campfires, is prohibited until such time as adequate precipitation belays the wild fire danger."

Since the ban was done by resolution and not by a county ordinance, however, Davison County couldn't consider tacking on a penalty for violating the burning ban.

However, the resolution refers to state laws that already exist. Violations are considered to be Class 1 misdemeanors punishable up to a year in the county jail and $1,000 fine.

Violators of the law also are liable for civil damages for all costs incurred by a fire, including injuries and damages to railroads and public and private utilities.

Legal requirements mean it could take from two weeks to a month before Clay County adopts an ordinance that would help curtail the outbreak of grass fires.

An ordinance, however, is preferred over a resolution, mainly because it would have more teeth.

If the county chooses to adopt such an ordinance, all violations during conditions that warrant a burn ban would be considered a Class 2 misdemeanor punishable up to 30 days in jail and a $200 fine.

The commission certainly has the right, and would, in fact, be remiss in its duties if it didn't take strong action to alleviate the fire problems in Clay County.

Consider this. Since late February, the Vermillion Fire Department has responded to 32 wild fire calls.

That averages out to be approximately one call per day. And it could be a long, hot summer.

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