Despite the burn ban that was in effect for Jefferson County for the past several weeks before Friday’s heavy rains, plumes of smoke could nevertheless be spotted on an almost daily basis rising from agricultural land in rural areas to the east of Pine Bluff.
A section of Arkansas state law that is little known outside the farming community makes it clear that such burning is in fact permitted as long as several criteria are met. While the burning of vegetation during a burn ban is normally a Class A misdemeanor, a farmer setting fire to any crop remainder or remaining vegetation after harvest of the crop on the person’s land is exempt.
“We do still ask them to report to us when they are going to burn so that we are aware of it,” said Jefferson County Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Karen Quarles. “They are required to have flaggers present on public roadways that run near their land to guide motorists through the smoke generated by the fires.”
This exemption does not. however. give farmers free rein to burn their fields in any manner they may desire, as several caveats to the exemption are also a part of the law. Farmers must provide a safety barrier between the material to be burned and the adjoining land; and the farmer must perform adequate disking of field perimeters or perform any other safety measures required by the county burn ban officer.
Burn bans are issued and cancelled by the county judge. In Jefferson County that person is Dutch King.
“Most of the farmers will come to me and ask permission before they start burning their fields,” King said. “It’s important for farmers to be smart about when they burn by keeping track of weather conditions. We haven’t had much wind lately but on days when we do have wind they need to be aware of that and make their plans accordingly.”
Jefferson County government provides area farmers with a list of safety precautions that must be taken when they are planning to burn off their fields during a burn ban. These include having someone attend the fire at all times; a prohibition on burning during high winds and at night; a prohibition on the use of petroleum-based products including tires, roofing and plastics; the presence of a connected water source or other means to control the fire available at all times; and having flaggers or advisory signs on adjoining roadways and notifying the county sheriff’s office of the date, approximate time and location of the burn area.
Quarles said that when entities aside from farmers come to the county judge to apply for a burn permit during a burn ban, representatives from OEM go to check out the site before the permit is issued to make sure that it is safe for the desired burning.
“We have turned some down because it wasn’t safe to burn in the areas that they wanted to burn,” Quarles said.