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‘Secret’ fires raise alarms

BOISE – Locations of coming field burns would no longer be state secrets in Idaho, under legislation introduced in the House on Monday.

“This was requested by our sheriff and our emergency services,” said Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, who’s sponsoring the bill along with Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow. “We’ve got some real public-health and safety issues.”

Trail told the House Agriculture Committee his law enforcement and fire officials frequently get calls about fires and spend hours “running around” his rural county looking for them, only to find they’re permitted agricultural-field burns. The state Department of Agriculture refuses to disclose the time, date and location of coming field burns, citing a public records exemption enacted in 1992 – long before the department took on regulation of field-burning.

A family in Trail’s district returned from a camping trip last summer to find its property on fire from an out-of-control field burn next door. The residents said they’d never have left town if they’d known of the coming burn.

Keough told the committee the law change would allow people to “take proper precautions” when they know a field will be burned, such as whisking asthmatic children out of the area.

Said Trail: “All it would take to resolve the situation would be for the Department of Agriculture to notify law enforcement. It would save our deputies hours of time and thousands of dollars in gas bills. … We’re really talking about the highest priority – safety and health.”

Last February the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked Idaho to give the public more information about where field burning will take place each day, but the department instead began providing less information, citing the 1992 exemption.

During last summer’s burn season, the department informed the public only that burning was approved on a particular day, between certain times, in a particular county. Notification of the number of acres to be burned was removed from the department’s Web site.

Wayne Hoffman, department spokesman, said Monday that the department has no objection to Trail’s bill and isn’t taking a position on it.

“If it’s the will of the Legislature that the information be made public, we would comply with whatever the Legislature tells us,” Hoffman said. “It is a legislative decision.”

The public-records exemption the department has cited is in a section of law protecting trade secrets. It bans public release of the location of seed-crop fields, along with names and addresses of growers, varieties and acreage by variety.

It was enacted after the state began requiring seed crop samples to be submitted to a state lab for disease testing, in response to concerns from southern Idaho growers that competitors might be able to use forms required for the lab testing to find out the secrets of their seed varieties.

When the exemption passed, its stated legislative purpose was to protect “proprietary information contained in the forms generated by seed testing labs.”

However,in recent years, the department has interpreted the law as mandating secrecy over the field burns the agency now regulates through the state smoke management program.

The bill says the existing exemption “shall not apply” to the location of field burns, and also would require the department to provide advance notice to local law enforcement and emergency services and an Internet posting for the public of its approved burns.

Some members of the Agriculture Committee, which consists almost entirely of farmers, were dubious.

Rep. Bert Stevenson, a Republican farmer from Rupert who’s serving his fifth legislative term, said department officials may not know about a burn until the last minute, when they give farmers who’ve registered to burn the go-ahead to “throw the match.”

Trail said the department should be able to notify law enforcement when it makes that call.

Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, an agribusinessman, voted against even introducing the bill or allowing a hearing on it.

“I’m struggling with why it’s the Department of Agriculture’s responsibility,” he said. “Why doesn’t Latah County just pass an ordinance that they have to be notified before there’s any open burning?”

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said, “Since we have put this oversight into the Department of Agriculture … this would be a fairly simple procedure.”

A public hearing on the bill will be scheduled in the committee in the coming weeks.


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