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Better burn that yard waste by sundown Wednesday
Annual ban aims to improve air quality
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Listen as Kevin Green, director of the Clean Air Campaign, explains why air quality is worse during the summer.

If you’ve got a pile of yard debris you want to burn, you’ve got less than two days left to do it. After sundown Wednesday, open burning will be banned in Hall County until Oct. 1.

Local officials said that no burn permits would be issued today because of high winds.

Hall is among 54 counties targeted by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division for having potentially unhealthy air quality during the summer. The five-month burn ban is intended to cut down on ground-level ozone, a key component of smog.

When vegetation is burned, it gives off chemicals that interact with heat and sunlight to create ozone. Kevin Green, executive director of Georgia’s Clean Air Campaign, said smog won’t form without heat, which is why air quality is worse in the summer.

Yet despite explosive population growth in metro Atlanta, people are breathing a little easier now.

"We certainly have better air quality than we did in the late 1990s, and that’s the result of a variety of things (including the burn ban and alternative transportation initiatives)," Green said.

But just as Atlanta was starting to improve, the federal government moved the measuring stick.

"The ozone standard has been ratcheted down just within the last month," Green said. "A lot of new regions have failed to meet the air-quality standard. Atlanta had 29 (ozone) violations last year under the old standard. I expect at least twice as many this year."

That could force the EPD to adopt tougher strategies, such as expanding the burn ban to more rural areas.

For now, though, the affected area includes the 20 counties in Atlanta’s "non-attainment" zone (which Hall and Forsyth are part of), as well as most of the contiguous counties, including Dawson, Banks, Jackson and Lumpkin.

Certain activities will still be allowed, including campfires and agriculture. But anyone who wants to get rid of yard waste such as tree limbs will have to either grind it up for compost or take it to an inert landfill.

The burn ban has nothing to do with Georgia’s drought. But last year, a number of counties decided to continue the ban after Sept. 30 because dry conditions made it too dangerous to set any kind of fire.

"Hopefully we’ll have a wet summer. But it looks like they’re forecasting another dry one," Hall County fire marshal Scott Cagle said.

With the deadline approaching, many Hall residents are taking a last opportunity to burn.

"We’ve had a large increase of people asking for permits, both residential and land-clearing," Cagle said.

To get a residential permit for burning yard debris such as twigs, all you have to do is call an automated phone line. But if you’ve chopped down entire trees, the process is more complicated.

"If you’re knocking trees over, it requires a land-clearing burn permit from the EPD and an inspection from our office," Cagle said. "It doesn’t matter whether you’re a developer or it’s just on your own property."

In any case, only natural materials such as tree limbs and shrubs may be burned. Garbage and construction waste are never allowed under any circumstances.

"You can only burn vegetation. For the most part, people are pretty good about following that," Cagle said.

He said the fire department hasn’t had much of a problem with residents violating the ban.

"People are used to it by now. We rarely have to issue citations," he said. "When there is a violation, it’s usually someone who has moved here from somewhere else."

The county can suspend burn permits at any time for safety reasons, such as a "red flag warning" for dry, windy weather. But Cagle doesn’t anticipate having to cancel permits this week.

"The weather should be good the next couple of days," he said.

But since fires cannot be left unattended, those wanting to burn may have to call their boss and tell him they can’t come in today.

"Fires must be out by dark, so you really can’t wait until after work to do it," Cagle said.