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Serving the communities of Massena and Potsdam, New York
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Massena firefighters encounter burn ban issues

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MASSENA -Village firefighters have responded to several calls in the last few weeks for backyard blazes.

When firefighters arrive, they find residents tending to backyard campfires, which they promptly extinguish. Homeowners are occasionally upset, and even angry, when the firefighters arrive to douse the flames.

“When we show up to put it out, they’ve been confrontational,” career firefighter Jeremy Lefeve said.

The village has had an outdoor burn ban in place since at least 1997. Village code prohibits residents from burning “brush, lumber, paper products, plastics, chemicals, trash, garbage, rubbish, wood or any other items.” Only “properly installed” outdoor fireplaces and grills can be used for preparing food; otherwise, any other backyard fire is prohibited.

“A properly installed fireplace is not a metal thing with a grate on top,” according to Code Enforcement Officer Gregory C. Fregoe. “The houses are way too close in the village to let everyone have a campfire in their backyard.”

The village’s volunteer and career firefighters are trying to spread the word that a longstanding code is the reason for their actions.

Occasionally, a neighbor will call in and complain about a backyard fire. And even if it’s well-kept or in a manufactured fire pit, the village has to extinguish it, according to Fire Crew Leader Ken McGowan and Massena Volunteer Fire Chief Thomas C. Miller.

The fires are occasionally in an outdoor fire pit sold at the area stores, but that doesn’t change the firefighters’ minds.

“Just because Walmart sells them doesn’t mean they have a right to burn in the village,” Mr. Miller said.

The village’s career firefighters have also been trained as code officers in the last year. If needed, they could write court appearance tickets for outdoor fires, which can be punishable with a $40 to $250 fine and up to 15 days in jail.

“There’s nothing saying we can’t issue them. Do we want to do that? No. We don’t want to take someone to court,” Mr. McGowan said. “We want to educate the public on the burn ban and the code.”

Mr. Miller said some residents have given him and his firefighters a hard time when they arrive to extinguish the blaze.

“We’re not trying to be hard —-es here,” Mr. Miller said. “We’re just trying to follow the law.”

Mr. McGowan pointed out that anyone who has a problem with the ban needs to address it with the village Board of Trustees, who could revise the law.

“If they want to change the village code, that’s where they have to start,” Mr. McGowan said.

The state recently implemented a different type of burn ban from July to Oct. 10, according to Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman Stephen Litwhiler.

The state prohibited all brush fires which were previously allowed in communities less than 20,000.

Small camp and cooking fires are allowed in municipalities which don’t have local laws like Massena’s, Mr. Litwhiler said; the DEC is focusing its enforcement on the brush fire ban.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, however, did issue a press release in July urging residents to “refrain from starting any type of outdoor fire” and to use extreme caution if one is necessary because of drought conditions across the state.

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