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Many brush fires fueled by carelessness
40 grass fires were reported in Hall County between Jan. 1 and Feb. 18
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About burn permits

Residential burn permits can be obtained through the fire department servicing your residential area during the burn season, which typically runs between Oct. 1 and April 30.

In Gainesville, permits can be requested from the Gainesville Fire Department by calling 770-534-3612.

In unincorporated areas of Hall County, requests should be made to the Hall County Fire Department at 770-536-2442.

The departments' rules on burning are similar. You will be asked to provide your name, address, phone number and a description of the items you plan to burn. A site visit might be in order.

Residents are allowed to burn grass, leaves and brush. An available water source is required, someone must attend the fire at all times and all burning must be complete by dark.

The Georgia Forestry Commission issues agriculture and silviculture, or forest area, burn permits. The GFC's Banks-Hall County unit can be reached at 770-869-3641.

All burn permits are free.

A pile of burning leaves can grow wild faster than it takes someone to grab a drink or use the bathroom. And that's exactly how brush fires usually occur, Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell said.

"Typically what happens is someone will be outside, they'll have a fire burning and run inside," Kimbrell said. "Just being away from it that couple minutes, it will get out of hand. If you're there watching it with the water hose, you can jump on it pretty quick."

Firefighters in Hall County and Northeast Georgia seemed to switch gears last weekend as dry conditions and winds changed the nature of most fire emergencies dialed into 911.

Instead of facing structure blazes caused mainly by improper heating, firefighters have been combatting a number of open area, grass or brush fires.

Though weather conditions calmed briefly with a rain storm early Friday, firefighters are reminding residents to secure permits before they burn.

"Most people don't know they need a permit. That's why the first time, we educate them," Kimbrell said. "The next time we go back, they're going to be given a citation."

In Hall County, 40 grass fires were reported between Jan. 1 and Feb. 18. Last year, 13 such calls were reported during the same period.

Weather conditions and lack of attention are mostly to blame for the increase, Hall Fire Marshal Scott Cagle said.

The Georgia Forestry Commission, which is outfitted with equipment for this purpose, pitched in on four of the calls last weekend because of their severity, said Doug Andrews, chief forest ranger for GFC's Banks-Hall County Unit. GFC rangers worked another six fires in Banks County, he added.

Andrews' unit also supported other GFC personnel in neighboring Lumpkin County on Tuesday, where a nearly 20-acre fire behind a tire business off Ga. 60 required seven rangers, three bulldozers and aerial surveillance.

Three homes were threatened and damaged in some way.

"This is what we staff up for and get ready for as far as suppression equipment," said Kris Butler, chief ranger of the GFC's Lumpkin County office. "Our readiness levels increase this time of year."

While local firefighters respond first, GFC units wait to be called in for assistance. They arrive often with additional water supplies, fire plows and specialized know-how on widespread outdoor blazes. Fire breaks and controlling widespread fires with fire are among the tools.

"It separates the fuel, cuts down the bare mineral soil," Andrews said. "Sometimes you have to cut multiple breaks across the head of a fire to get it under control. Sometimes we fight fire with fire, if it's running real hard."

An investigation occurs after every fire. Penalties for unlawful burning can include a warning, citation and or a bill for services, depending on the agency handling the fire.

GFC investigators submit fire suppression invoices. The bills account for the resources used to fight a fire deemed unlawful because there was no permit or illegal materials were torched.

"It's not a fine. It's an actual invoice," Andrews said.

A homeowner's intention is often innocent, firefighters said. But neglect or plain ignorance can cause a burning pile of dead leaves to advance into a major problem.

Burning unauthorized materials can escalate a blaze as well, officials said.

"Most of the time, it's household garbage," Andrews said, mentioning one recent case in which a resident was burning appliances. "There was a recycling center two miles up the road from his house and it was free. ... We do not have a problem with anybody doing any outdoor burning as long as they obtain a burn permit and follow our recommendations."

Residential permits are free and can be obtained through Hall County Fire Services or Gainesville Fire Department.

GFC rangers distribute permits for agriculture and silviculture, which relates to forest areas, Andrews said.

Permits are suspended during dangerous fire weather conditions, which the GFC also monitors and reports daily.

Gainesville incidents are fewer in number because the residential population is more concentrated, said Jerome Yarbrough, Gainesville's deputy fire chief.

Cigarettes that are tossed outside moving vehicles and onto grassy medians are a more common cause of brush fires, Yarbrough said.

Roughly 80-100 residential permits are issued during the season, with no burning allowed May 1 to Oct. 1.

Authorization is not granted without a site visit, however. Firefighters evaluate where the burn will take place and deliver a brief safety lesson, Yarbrough said.

"Normally, it's the same people who call for the permits. It's a routine," he said. "The ones where you have problems, most of the time it is an illegal burn. They didn't call for a permit, the fire is in the wrong spot, they leave it unattended, it gets out of control."

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