Counties will have authority to issue, enforce burn bans

Monday, July 15, 2013

A local representative's bill that grants county commissions additional authority to issue and enforce burn ban orders soon will become law.

Rep. Donna Lichtenegger, R-Jackson, said she was prompted to create House Bill 28 after a friend working for the Millersville volunteer fire department informed her of the lack of local authority to issue and enforce burn bans.

"For the first few years you're elected, you're still learning," she said. "But after last year's drought I thought this really needed to get done."

Lichtenegger said she managed to have the bill passed just before the end of this year's legislative session. It becomes law Aug. 28 after it received the governor's signature Friday.

The bill allows county commissions to issue burn ban orders, which carry a penalty for violators of up to a class A misdemeanor. The ban first must be approved by the state fire marshal, who determines if it is appropriate based on "an actual or impending occurrence of a natural disaster of major proportions within the county," and if the county is designated as an area of severe, extreme or exceptional drought by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Lichtenegger said that in previous years when counties experienced drought conditions, they had "no authority at all" to enforce a ban. The local representative said she believes counties will benefit from the power that will be granted to more local agencies.

"We wanted the control to be more at a local level," she said. "What happens in northeast or northwest Missouri may not be the same as what's going on in Southeast Missouri. ... It's a large state that experiences many types of weather."

When Cape Girardeau County experienced drought conditions last summer, emergency management director Richard Knaup said the "ban" the county issued wasn't really even a ban.

"It was more of an advisory," he said. "They never really had the power to do that, so what they issued was more of a burn warning."

He said there were times when it was difficult to encourage people to heed the advisory, but the county did have some powers, however limited.

"We did have the reckless burning statute," Knaup said. "So if you were burning on your own property, that was fine, but if it crossed your property line and the burning spread to a neighbor's property, then it became reckless burning and the sheriff's department could issue a citation."

Lichtenegger said she worked with county commissioners across the state to create the bill, which she said she will continue to improve next year with the help of the state fire marshal.

"I believe the county commissioners need more control, as does the fire marshal," she said. "He just wants to sit down and make a few tweaks to the law."


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