The Regional District of Nanaimo is looking into an outright ban on open burning.
“The open burning regulations are inadequate to protect us,” Doreen Hampton told the RDN board Tuesday, speaking as a part of a delegation concerned with slash burning in her River’s Edge neighbourhood near Parksville.
She said a resident has cleared about 20 acres and is starting to burn large piles of woody debris including huge stumps she said will burn for weeks.
“During the burning there were occasions when I could hardly see across the street,” she said. “The severity of the smoke and ash has caused respiratory distress in people making them confined to their own homes.”
She said some residents have gone to stay in hotels to be able to breathe and she called on the RDN to follow the example of the Cowichan Valley Regional District and impose a total ban on open burning.
“The British Columbia Lung Association states that wood smoke hurts human health. Wood smoke contains small particles you breathe into your lungs causing problems,” she said.
“These fires are not what you’d call campfires,” said fellow resident Rob Baker, “they’re the size of the whole inside of this building. When these are lit the smoke continues on for weeks, we can’t even go in our backyards.”
“I don’t understand how this can continue,” he said passionately, calling on the board to do something immediately.
“It’s a mess,” agreed Joe Stanhope, RDN director of Area G, which includes River’s Edge, saying he’d seen the work and suggested it will take many months to burn it all.
Geoff Garbutt, general manager of strategic and community development, agreed open burning and the resulting smoke is an ongoing issue in the RDN, which came to the forefront with an “extensive burning issue just outside Parksville (in 2014),” referring to burning along Church Road and the Island Highway in October 2014.
“I can empathize with the group that’s here tonight because we suffered through the fire off of Church Road,” said Parksville Mayor Marc Lefebvre.
“Thanksgiving Day (2014) I came out of my house at 10 in the morning and thought there was a fire right across the street, the smoke and the smell was so bad,” he said, adding that people went to the hospital with severe bronchial problems.
He said those fires had been started without permission and burned for three weeks, and he would support regulation.
Garbutt said it is provincial Ministry of Environment jurisdiction, which has had a burning bylaw in draft form for several years while trying to “balance the needs of various industries and local populations that absorb the outcomes of these kind of burning events.”
“Ultimately that authority has the responsibility to enforce that,” he said, acknowledging the frustration of residents and RDN board.
Director Jim Kipp agreed open burning should be banned, pointing out there are alternatives, including places that will take debris for free as compost.
“If the Cowichan Valley can ban it, we can ban it… Get us a bylaw,” he said suggesting the RDN shouldn’t wait for slow provincial regulation, but create its own.
Garbutt said 70 percent of Nanoose Bay residents rejected a ban in a 2008 referendum and said RDN staff has met with staff from Parksville and the provincial government twice since the Church Road burn and are stuck waiting on the province.
“The fact is, in regards to Church Road, those people didn’t burn in compliance… the ministry indicated they were monitoring and following up, unfortunately once these fires start they are extremely difficult to put out.”
“There are regulations that are supposed to be enforced,” he said.
Area E Director Bob Rogers pointed out that River’s Edge falls within the Nanoose Volunteer Fire Department’s jurisdiction and they don’t have the resources to regulate and police fires like that.
Lantzville Director Colin Haime said “people are closer to being done with it,” suggesting times are changing and since the 2008 referendum more people are ready to ban open burning.
The board asked staff to report on options for banning open burning at a future meeting.