Review suggests only minor changes to backyard burning rules

THUNDER BAY – A small number of legitimate concerns over backyard fires can be addressed without overhauling the rules governing outdoor burning in the city of Thunder Bay, a review has found.

City council called for a report earlier this year on a potential new bylaw to address smoke concerns from local residents, with some councillors suggesting new restrictions like shorter burning hours could be needed.

Deputy fire chief Eric Nordlund told councillors at a Monday meeting that a review conducted by Thunder Bay Fire Rescue showed the current system is working well for most residents.

“It’s clear the community greatly supports the right to be able to have recreational fires,” he said. “We have good compliance and… safety has never been an issue.”

The review did show a need to tweak existing rules to address concerns from residents who say problem smoke is impacting their health and ability to enjoy their yards, Nordlund said.

“It’s definitely an issue that has raised some concern in the community,” he said. “We found the concern came from a fairly small group of people, [though there were] very important points that they brought forward.”

A report prepared by Nordlund recommended against a new bylaw, instead proposing Thunder Bay's fire chief use his existing authority under the Ontario Fire Code to make small changes to the existing open air burning policy.

“We’re never going to keep everyone happy,” Nordlund said, but “I think with fine-tuning our methodology, we’ll hit the target of ensuring folks are able to enjoy fire pits, but do it in a way that they’re not bothering their neighbours.”

The current rules, introduced in 2009, require a $30-a-year permit and allow fires between 5 p.m. and midnight.

The review by Thunder Bay Fire Rescue included an online survey available in September and October, which garnered 3,859 responses.

Over 93 per cent  of respondents favoured continuing to allow backyard fires in the city, while 94.5 per cent reported never having a negative experience because of smoke from a neighbour’s fire.

A narrow majority of 56.5 per cent voiced support for extending burning hours, while 2.6 per cent felt they should be reduced.

Coun. Mark Bentz questioned the reliability of those numbers, establishing that the survey was distributed by TBFR to many outdoor burning permit holders in its efforts to promote uptake.

The survey was also made available through usual channels on the city’s website and covered in local media.

“It would have been shared with folks that have the permit,” Nordlund told Bentz. “Would that have an effect on the number and type of responses? Yes, it probably would.”

“That’s my concern, it would be definitely a biased survey in that instance," Bentz responded. “That’s not to say it’s totally invalid, but an approval rating of 95 per cent is extremely high on any issue. I hope you take that into account – I do think there’s probably more concern in the community than those numbers suggest.”

Reached Wednesday, Nordlund clarified a link to the survey had been sent to a general TBFR mailing list, not specifically to those holding backyard fire permits. The mailing list would include those who registered for a fire permit online, he said.

“The numbers in the survey do need to be taken with a grain of salt, I think, but we’re pretty confident that we’ve got support of the community to continue in the direction we’re suggesting here.”

TBFR’s recommendations were based on years of experience and data, not just public feedback, he noted.

The fire service receives only about 20 to 30 complaints per year in connection to the roughly 6,500 local burning permits, and about twice that number related to those burning without a permit.

The motion passed Monday directs Hankkio “to review the Open Air Burning Policy in an effort to reduce smoke complaints by improving the location of fire pits relative to neighbouring properties, and to improve guidance to responding officers to identify and extinguish those fires that are creating bothersome smoke.”

Solutions could include adjusting rules around the location of fire pits, to take the proximity of neighbouring houses into account, Nordlund said (guidelines are currently based simply on lot size).

Changes to hours when open air burning is permitted are not currently under consideration, he said.

Coun. Andrew Foulds suggested the city should also consider accommodations for those who demonstrate underlying medical conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to smoke.

Council will receive an update on the review of the policy by August of 2022.


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