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Officials Yield, Allow Burning of Cleared Brush in Mountains

November 20, 1986|BOB POOL | Times Staff Writer

Bowing to pressure from Topanga Canyon property owners and firefighters, air-pollution officials backed down Tuesday from a ban on backyard bonfires in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District said it will allow limited burning of brush and other vegetation that mountain-area residents clear from around their homes during the next six months.

The reprieve will allow residents to dispose of next spring's harvest of chaparral, already predicted to be a bumper crop because of an expected rainy winter.

It will also give air-quality and fire officials time to come up with a permanent strategy for dealing with brush that grows throughout the Santa Monicas.

Mountain landowners have traditionally used small fires, set on windless days, to dispose of unwanted brush. Permits for the fires have been issued by the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Burning Ban Enforced

But air-quality officials ordered a halt to the practice six months ago to enforce what was described as a "longstanding policy on open burning" in the Los Angeles Basin. Officials ruled that brush did not fit the description of "agricultural products," which can be legally burned under air-district regulations.

Topanga Canyon residents protested last week that the prohibition would cause some mountain property owners to skip brush clearance altogether next spring. The ban could prompt others to dump debris in gullies rather than pay to cart it off to a public landfill in Agoura, they said.

The residents warned that such dumping could cause a buildup of dead brush, endangering the 2,000-home Topanga area next year.

Jim Birakos, deputy executive officer of the air-quality district, said Tuesday that Los Angeles County fire officials will be authorized to resume issuing backyard burning permits "if they determine a fire hazard exists and burning the material is the best method of handling it."

Close Monitoring Expected

But he said his agency will monitor the bonfires. "We'll be looking at the area very closely," Birakos said.

The district favors use of mechanical devices such as "chippers" that can cleanly dispose of brush and dead limbs if property owners do not want to truck the materials out of the canyon. Birakos conceded, however, that some landowners have "limited access" to their property, restricting use of such equipment.

Los Angeles County Fire Department Battalion Chief Jerry Peskett said late Tuesday that firemen were prepared to begin handing out the burning permits once they get a formal go-ahead from air-district officials.

Earlier, assistant county Fire Chief Paul Blackburn said his department strongly supports the burning off of brush "in a safe burning situation."

A spokeswoman for the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District, which had lobbied for a resumption of backyard burning, also applauded the end of the ban.

"It's important for people living in the mountains to have the option," Elizabeth Douphner, clerk of the resource district, said Tuesday night.

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