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The outdoor burn ban for Hall, other counties ends Wednesday
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Hall County Fire Marshal Scott Cagle talks about safety rules for outdoor burning.

Just a couple more days and it’s burn, baby, burn.

Metro Atlanta’s five-month ban on outdoor burning ends Wednesday, and for some Hall County residents, Oct. 1 seems to be a red-letter day on their calendars.

"I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I can’t wait to burn,’" said Hall County Fire Marshal Scott Cagle.

But just because the ban is ending doesn’t mean outdoor burning is allowed under all circumstances. Local fire officials can deny burn permits because of excessively dry weather, high winds or other unsafe conditions.

By now, most people in the greater Atlanta area know that they can’t burn yard debris in the summer, but many of them mistakenly believe it’s because of the drought.

In fact, the restrictions are part of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s program to improve air quality during the summer ozone season.

The policy started with Atlanta’s original 13-county nonattainment area for ozone. That wasn’t enough to curb air pollution, so the area was expanded to 45 counties, including Hall.

Now, several other Georgia cities, including Macon and Columbus, are classified as nonattainment for ozone. So the ban now applies to a total of 54 Georgia counties, and is in effect from May 1 through Sept. 30.

Susan Zimmer-Dauphinee, manager of the EPD’s ambient monitoring program, said she doesn’t foresee a statewide ban anytime soon.

"It’s kind of a compromise rule, because there is a need to do some burns (such as for agriculture and forestry purposes)," she said. "But the burn ban helps us to demonstrate to the (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) that we are taking steps to meet air quality requirements."

This was the first year that Atlanta had to adhere to a stricter ozone standard. Officials thought this would result in more "ozone exceedance" days, but that didn’t happen.

"We’ve had 26 days so far this year that exceeded the (new) standard of 76 parts per billion," said Zimmer-Dauphinee. "Under the old standard of 85 parts per billion last year, we had 27 violations."

Several factors may have contributed to the relatively low number of exceedances this year, despite the tighter standard. The summer of 2008 was cooler than usual, which reduces the likelihood of ozone formation. Also, there may have been less pollution from cars, because high gas prices kept some people off the roads.

"After the ozone season ends, we’ll start to do a lot of statistical analysis and look at the meteorological conditions," said Zimmer-Dauphinee. "It takes about a year to complete the study."

But in Atlanta’s outlying counties, no one cares much about that. They’re just happy they can get rid of their yard waste without having to haul it to an inert landfill.

Cagle said because many people still mistakenly associate the burn ban with drought, they see the low level of Lake Lanier and somehow conclude that they won’t be able to burn this year.

"We have gotten numerous calls the last few weeks," he said. "They want to make sure the ban will still be lifted."

Cagle assures them that it will. Hall County residents will be able to call an automated phone line Wednesday morning and get a burn permit, which is valid only for that day.

But Cagle said people should expect some days this fall when they call the number and get a message saying permits have been canceled due to low humidity or high winds.

He said people who obtain permits need to be aware of all the rules. Fires must be attended at all times, and must be extinguished at night or when wind velocity is too high.

And the only materials that may be burned are leaves, twigs and grass. Contractors can burn trees that have been cut down during construction, but only if they get a land-clearing permit, and that requires an on-site inspection.

It is illegal to burn any form of garbage or construction debris, such as drywall and roofing shingles, anywhere in Georgia.

Cagle said most people have been pretty good about following the rules.

"We’ve only had about three illegal burns this past week," he said. "Two were people who did not know the correct date (that the ban ends), or they played dumb and said they didn’t.

"The other one was burning illegal material. They said they didn’t know they couldn’t burn carpeting, which I don’t believe."

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