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Tinder box

JOHNSON COUNTY– Johnson County is currently under a ban against open burning.
The State Fire Marshal’s office issued a proclamation on Thursday, July 12, stating that open burning is now prohibited in Johnson County until further notice, when local fire departments determine that conditions dangerous to life or property no longer exists.
In laymen’s turns, that would be when the parched and crisp foliage finally gets a good drink of rain.
The proclamation was made in response to a request from Solon Fire Chief Dan Smith, representing each fire department that services all or parts of Johnson County. Smith is the current president of the Mutual Aid Association, a position that rotates after each one-year term.
Smith said the decision to request the ban is based on general observations of conditions and a fire chief’s experience.
“Under the really dry conditions we’ve had, and with a forecast that continued to be dry, we made the decision that open burning could constitute a danger,” Smith said. “We have information from the National Weather Service that pointed out conditions are dangerous within the county.” Also, since neighboring Linn County instituted a burn ban, Smith said it made Johnson County fire officials consider whether they should do the same.
But not every fire is considered “open burning.” Exempt from the ban are controlled and supervised burns for which a permit has been issued by the local fire chief. Other allowed burning includes the use of outdoor fireplaces or fire pits, barbecue grills, the burning of trash in incinerators or trash burning barrels made of metal, concrete, masonry or wire mesh with openings no greater than one square inch.
Dave Wilson, Emergency Management Coordinator for Johnson County, said the exemptions also apply to parks, where metal fire rings allow for campfires, for example.
The biggest danger, Smith said, is when there is potential for small fires to spread to nearby structures. Fire pits usually have some sort of cover that keeps sparks from flying into the air, and the metal rings around area campground fire pits also help to keep a fire contained. However, Smith said, extreme caution is still needed.
“People aren’t prohibited from using fire pits and those types of things, but I’d prefer everybody held off until conditions get better,” said Smith. “People can still apply for an open burning permit from the fire chief in their own district. It’s the fire chief’s final decision.”
Burn bans have been issued in 21 Iowa counties, including Linn County, which banned open burning on July 6. The other counties abutting Johnson– Cedar, Muscatine, Louisa, Washington and Iowa counties– did not have burn bans in effect as of the date of this publication.
The Midwest’s drought has affected more than burning regulations.
According to USDA/Iowa Agricultural Statistics surveys, the percentage of the state’s topsoil with adequate to surplus moisture decreased to 27 percent on July 1. This is the lowest percentage for this time of year since the summer heat and dryness of 1988, during which the adequate moisture in the topsoil was just 10 percent.
“We expect some burn bans during the spring and fall of every year. It is significant when one-third of the state is in a burn ban in July,” stated State Fire Marshal Ray Reynolds in a recent press release.
In the first half of 1988, Iowa rainfall averaged 7.51 inches, the lowest in historical record, and only one-half of what has been recorded this year.
Nationally, the percentage of the lower 48 states rated abnormally dry or worse by the U.S. Drought Monitor is the greatest for any time of year since the government-funded U. S. Drought Monitor out of Lincoln, Neb., began keeping track in 2000. About 53 percent of the Midwest had moderate to extreme drought conditions as of July 3, also a record since 2000.
The burn bans are lifted when firefighters deem conditions have improved so open burning no longer poses a potential danger. At that time, the public will be notified through the media and information posted on Johnson County’s website, johnson-county.com. A current list of Iowa counties under open burning bans can also be found on the Iowa Department of Public Safety website at dps.state.ia.us/fm/main/burnbans.