February 27, 2024

Jasper County has a controlled burn ordinance, right? Actually, no.

Supervisors want policy requiring citizens to notify dispatch of controlled burns

Jasper County Supervisor Brandon Talsma thought all this time that citizens were required to call dispatch and inform authorities of their controlled burns, but as it turns out he was wrong. Although many have notified dispatch as a courtesy, there is no code in place that requires citizens to give the sheriff a heads up.

The board of supervisors on March 7 decided to rectify that minor oversight and agreed with assistant county attorney Nicholas Pietrack’s request to establish a controlled burn ordinance. To do so requires the board to schedule public hearing dates, which will be done at the March 14 meeting.

The public hearing dates are tentatively set for March 21 and March 28.

Last summer there was an incident in Jasper County where some local fire departments inadvertently responded to a controlled burn. Pietrack did not speak in-depth to the details of the incident, but some of the fire departments got trapped in an area where they maybe should not have been.

“Because they weren’t exactly sure where to respond,” Pietrack said. “It wasn’t necessarily the safest situation for them. They shouldn’t have been there in the first place because it was a controlled burn. The second thing that happened was there was another call that came in around the same time.”

However, the department was already responding to the controlled burn and could not respond quick enough to the other location, Pietrack added.

Collaboration between the attorney’s office, local fire departments and Jasper County Emergency Management resulted in the idea to set up a notification requirement for any kind of controlled burn, whether it is a structure fire, agricultural burn or prairie burn.

It is strictly a notification about controlled burns, Pietrack stressed, not a permission to conduct a controlled burn.

“Just a ‘Hey, I’m going to do this on this day’ and kind of the rough plan kind of thing,” Pietrack said. “Other counties have permits that are required for any type of burn. It’s not this. It’s just strictly notification. If somebody does not notify dispatch and a fire department responds, there are some civil penalties.”

Geographically, Jasper County is a large county and resources are limited, especially for volunteer fire departments, Pietrack said. The idea with the ordinance is to make sure departments are aware of where they need to be and where they do not need to be, thereby reducing those past mistakes.

Supervisor Doug Cupples asked how the county intends to inform people about this change, reasoning that there will likely be people who will say they did not have to notify dispatch in the past. Pietrack said it would be pushed out and communicated through the website as well.

“There are ton of other requirements — state and federal laws — that people have to follow for burns,” Pietrack said. “I don’t necessarily know those, but I know they exist. This is strictly just a notice.”

Jasper County Sheriff John Halferty said there have been many people over the years who have called dispatch ahead of time when they conduct controlled burns. Halferty appreciates those people who already follow that practice, but he confirmed it has been an issue for his department when people don’t call.

“I would be concerned about consistency of the fire chiefs, and we can work with them on making sure that we’re consistent,” Halferty said. “What I mean by that is: I think the resolution allows a little bit of leeway that if they get on scene they can determine if it was an accident or something.”

It does not require that citizens have to be cited, but it gives fire departments the opportunity to at least counsel, warn them and then cite. Halferty recalled a recent fire on a Red Flag Day near S52 and F48 where it took five or six departments to douse the flames.

“It was very dangerous,” he said. “We almost had a truck get hit by a motorist. That was a fire that, in my opinion, could have been avoided. They were doing some things they shouldn’t have been doing. We want this ability to do it (cite), but I think an important part is to educate the public.”

The county is not telling citizens they can’t have controlled burns, Halferty added, but authorities just want a little heads up.

Citizens should also have adequate people to control the fire or at the very least watch it. Halferty is overall in support of the ordinance but stressed the public needs to be educated and that there needs to be consistently enforce the code if it needs to be enforced.

Talsma is in support of it, too.

“For years I’ve burned forever and burned with the farm. We always called an notified,” he said. “I always thought it was a requirement until Nick sent me this.”

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.