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Dry weather prompts winter burn crackdown

As dry conditions persist across the region, Cal Fire officials have taken the unusual step of suspending open burning in Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino and Napa counties.

The decision, effective Monday, covers the areas Cal Fire is responsible for in those counties, as well as parts of Colusa, Solano and Yolo counties. Those needing to burn for agricultural or industrial purposes still can do so if they obtain a permit.

The primary target is homeowners who burn piles of brush.

“Normally people would be allowed to burn once we declared fire season closed, but the weather has not cooperated with giving us normal weather patterns,” said Fire Prevention Specialist Suzie Blankenship. “With that, we've been experiencing a lot of escaped burns and vegetation fires. The region has put the burn suspension in place until we get the rains we're all hoping for.”

The restriction comes shortly after a prolonged fire season ended on Dec. 16. It's the only winter permit suspension that Blankenship has seen in her seven years with Cal Fire.

There have been an unusual number of vegetation fires in recent months, she said. In November and December of 2012, Cal Fire dealt with five vegetation fires in the region, she said. In November and December of 2013, there were 91.

She said some of those fires could have resulted from small brush fires that were not properly supervised or extinguished. Others could have come from people not disposing of their fireplace ashes correctly.

Those needing to burn for agricultural or industrial purposes, such as getting rid of old vines at vineyards or the woody debris left by logging, can still do so if they get a specific burn permit from Cal Fire officials, Blankenship said.

Homeowners, however, must let their debris sit until the prohibition is lifted, she said.

Tim Tesconi, interim manager of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, said the restrictions likely won't pose a problem for local grape growers. Some growers have turned away from burning old vines in recent years, chipping them instead and reusing the material, he said.

Campfires are allowed in designated campgrounds or in established burning locations on private land, according to a statement released by Cal Fire. The ban will continue until rains ease the dry conditions.

Blankenship encouraged any one with a fire place to take special care disposing of ashes. She recommended putting them in a metal container, mixing them with water and allowing them to sit until all the coals are extinguished.

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