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COMPLAINTS LEAD TO TOWN BAN ON OUTDOOR FIRES

The elderly woman was too afraid of her neighbors to complain about the smoke from the backyard bonfires that forced her to keep her windows shut tight on some of the hottest days last summer.

A middle-aged man on another street complained plenty about his neighbors' smoky brush and trash fires, but it rarely did any good.

Cheektowaga officials said they had these and many other residents -- some with health problems -- in mind this week when a new law against "open burning" went on the books in a unanimous vote by the Town Board.

Town police gave up trying to enforce the old law in 1998 after the town attorney called it "ineffective and unenforceable."

But now, people who burn "brush, wood, lumber, paper products, plastic, tires, garbage, refuse and other related items" outdoors can face a fine of up to $250, 15 days in jail, or both.

Exceptions are made, of course, for outdoor grills and fireplaces -- as long as they're being used "for the preparation of food."

The new law even stipulates what fuel can be used -- "material typically used in the device, such as charcoal, charcoal briquets, wood in its natural state or wood pellets."

"If it's a cooking fire, fine," said the measure's legislative sponsor, Council Member Thomas M. Johnson Jr.

"But when they pile on the kindling to drink and have a good time, and the neighbors can't use the yards or keep their windows open because of the smoke -- then it's not fine, then you put it out," Johnson said.

Town Fire Inspector Matthew D. Kawczynski began lobbying early this year for a better law to regulate outdoor fires after getting an average of three complaints a week for several months.

Complaints ranged from people who felt trapped in their homes whenever their party-minded neighbors had a bonfire or whose neighbors routinely burned their garden and yard waste, to residents downwind of burning garbage, trash or worse.

"If we could get this (new) ordinance into place, it would eliminate the gray areas in the current ordinances and give us a tool to do something about the numerous complaints we get," Kawczynski wrote in one memo to Town Board members last June.

The "current ordinances" the fire inspector referred to included not only the town's own air-pollution ordinance, adopted in 1958, but various county and state regulations as well. There were two fundamental problems with the old town ordinance:

It put the town health officer -- a position abolished in 1984 -- in charge of air pollution control.

It placed enforcement in the hands of a five-member air-pollution control board -- a board that likewise didn't exist.

"In my opinion, the air-pollution ordinance is both ineffective and unenforceable," Town Attorney James J. Kirisits wrote in June 1998, after researching the issue at the request of town police.

Under the new law, except for cooking fires, only public agencies or fire districts -- after satisfying any local, county or state requirements -- may burn structures, lumber or other materials outdoors anywhere in Cheektowaga, including the villages of Sloan and Depew, officials said.

Any town police officer, fire inspector or building inspector can issue court summonses to violators.

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