Mark Dewitz, chef and vendor at the Saturday White Street Farmers’ Market, was given a metal barrel to burn trash when he bought his home in rural Carroll County in 1985. At the time, there was no rural trash collection and disposal services.
“My neighbors were also burning trash,” Dewitz said. “I used the burn barrel for a while and realized it wasn’t a good thing to do. It smells bad. Even when you burn something you think is cardboard, like a milk carton, it is lined with plastic. Burning is a huge problem because people don’t want to take the time and effort to deal properly with their waste.”
Thirty-five years after he first received the burn barrel, evidence is mounting about the dangers from burning trash in the backyard or elsewhere. The EPA warns that backyard burning of waste materials creates higher levels of dioxins than industrial incinerators. Dioxins are harmful because they are long lasting in the environment, build up in the food chain, and are linked to cancer, reproductive harm, birth defects, learning disabilities, and other illnesses.
“Backyard burning is particularly dangerous because it releases pollutants at the ground level where they are more readily inhaled or incorporated into the food chain,” EPA states on its website.
Nick Samac, emergency management coordinator for Carroll County, said it is particularly bad to burn treated wood, painted materials, plastics, and items like mattresses and sofas.
“All that man-processed stuff is terrible for the environment when it’s burned,” Samac said. “Don’t burn anything that puts off black smoke. You can burn leaves, sticks and limbs in the county in a burn barrel as long as someone has a rake and hose. Keep with it. Often people leave it unattended, and then the fire department has to go and put it out. People with illegal burns or dumps in the county get referred to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality.”
Jim Kelley, fire marshal and assistant ESFD chief, said you are allowed to burn leaves and brush in the city only after obtaining a written permit from the fire department. People living in Eureka Springs city limits wanting to burn are required to call the fire department business number (479) 253-9616.
“We will come out and survey the site and issue a written permit,” Kelley said. “However, you must meet the city and state fire code requirements before we can issue a burn permit. People who live outside the city, but are in the Eureka Springs Fire District, are asked to call the fire department so that we can advise them of any high fire danger conditions or red flag warnings we may have received from the National Weather Center in Tulsa. Low humidity and a little wind can create a risky day for burning and catch people off guard.”
People who live in the city limits can also ask for a permit to build a firepit and then they will not need a permit to burn in it, but are asked to call and let the fire department know when burning.
Kelley said they try to be a Fire Wise City, which has a program with proposed guidelines to reduce the risk of fire danger. He said to do that, you need to allow some burning when conditions are right, if that is the most practical way to remove excess flammable materials.
“The best thing people can do is to trim up low limbs and clear dead grass and leaves out away from their house and haul them away, if possible,” Kelley said. “If you burn, have a good garden hose handy and drained out in winter so it’s not frozen up if it’s needed.”
People can call and request the fire department come to their house and do a Fire Wise Assessment to determine what areas on their property are creating high fire danger. Assessment forms provided by the Forestry Service are used to show people which areas around their home needs improvement.
In December, Eureka Springs was smoked in one day with fires that may have come from burning leaves. Dewitz doesn’t think it is good to burn leaves or limbs as it creates hazardous smoke throughout the neighborhood.
“I had a big pile of brush that went from ten feet tall to now just five feet tall,” Dewitz said. “It breaks down naturally. Piles of brush provide habitat for animals. And, in Eureka, you don’t have to burn leaves and limbs. You just take them to the Public Works center where they chip and compost them.”
Dewitz said leaves need to be left on the forest floor where they feed nutrients and organic matter back into the soil. He finds it ironic that some people want to save the Amazon, which is being deforested at a rapid rate, but don’t protect their own backyard.
“How about save the Ozarks?” he asks. “And how about people’s health? Any kind of smoke is harmful to human lungs.”
Dewitz gets upset when he drives around and sees people burning huge piles of leaves. He said burning leaves and limbs immediately add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which overloads the whole ecological system leading to climate change that causes flooding, droughts, forest fires and more severe storms.
“When I was a little kid, the planet was overpopulated,” he said. “Now, sixty years later, it is far more overpopulated. The main problem is overpopulation and the lack of education on protecting the earth.”