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Wildfire risk up significantly due to dry, unseasonably warm weather in Finger Lakes

  • / Updated:
  • Staff Report 

As the Finger Lakes region experiences an unseasonably warm and dry spell, the risk of wildfires has increased significantly, prompting the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to remind residents of the annual statewide ban on residential brush burning, in effect from March 16 through May 14.

The ban has been enforced to prevent wildfires and protect communities during periods of heightened fire risk. Open burning of debris is the leading cause of spring wildfires in the state, with many wildfires starting easily and spreading quickly due to dry fall debris, strong winds, and a lack of green vegetation. Each year, DEC Forest Rangers work to extinguish dozens of wildfires, which can burn hundreds of acres, often requiring local volunteer fire departments to leave their jobs and families to respond to these dangerous situations.

New York implemented strict restrictions on open burning in 2009 to help prevent wildfires and reduce air pollution. The regulations permit residential brush fires in towns with fewer than 20,000 residents for most of the year, but prohibit them during spring, when most wildfires occur. However, backyard fire pits and campfires less than three feet in height and four feet in length, width, or diameter are allowed, as are small cooking fires, provided that only charcoal or clean, untreated, and unpainted wood is burned. Residents must never leave these fires unattended and must extinguish them properly. Burning garbage or leaves is illegal year-round in the state.

Certain towns, mainly in and around the Adirondack and Catskill parks, are designated as “fire towns,” where open burning is prohibited year-round without a permit from the DEC. To determine whether a municipality is a fire town or to obtain a permit, residents should contact their local DEC regional office. A list of regional offices can be found on the DEC’s website.

Enforcement of the burn ban is carried out by Forest Rangers, DEC Environmental Conservation Police Officers (ECOs), and local authorities. Violators of the open burning regulation can face criminal and civil enforcement actions, with a minimum fine of $500 for a first offense. To report a wildfire, illegal activity on state lands and easements, or search and rescue needs, call 1-833-NYS-RANGERS (1-833-697-7264). To report environmental law violations, call 1-844-DEC-ECOs (1-844-332-3267).

For more information on fire safety and prevention, visit the DEC’s FIREWISE New York webpage.