Outdoor wood fire ban about bylaw ‘performance’ not complaints: fire chief

(Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston, File)

CORNWALL – The city’s fire chief says a ban on outdoor wood fires and Chimeneas was needed because of poor bylaw “performance” – not complaints about fires themselves.

“I’ve been monitoring the performance of this bylaw and essentially the reason it’s in front of you today is because, I think the data is telling us that we have some issues with the performance of the bylaw,” Pierre Voisine told councillors Monday night.

Basically, the ratio of people having permits – 260 – versus the number of complaints – roughly 77 in four months this year – is too high.

In fact, firefighters had to roll their engines 12-15 times last weekend, mostly over neighbourly spats over wood smoke.

The chief said responding to the complaints was “not an issue…we serve to the pleasure of council.”

There are also problems with people burning stuff other than clean wood.

Voisine also downplayed the social media outrage over the fire pit and Chimenea ban, saying he personally cross-referenced people’s Facebook posts with permit holders and “very few of those people actually have permits.” The chief discounted the validity of public comments from people the bylaw doesn’t apply to versus the data on permits and complaints. “I think that the data that we have is more apropos to the people which are affected by this bylaw.”

Coun. Justin Towndale disagreed. “The bylaws apply to everybody. So people can have an opinion on it even if they can’t have their own fire but I think their opinion is valid, quite frankly.”

Hundreds of comments on both Cornwall Newswatch and Seaway News were mostly in objection to the ban.

Still, council voted 8-3 to ban outdoor wood burning with an exception for people who still have valid permits. That means wood smoke from backyard fire pits and Chimeneas will still be a thing through 2021.

Many councillors latched on to the health and safety message and saving the environment in backing up their move for the ban.

“We are just hurting people. We’ve got to stop hurting people,” Coun. Glen Grant exclaimed. The councilman added that, if it were up to him, the ban would be immediate and all permits cancelled.

Coun. Justin Towndale, called the ban a “knee-jerk reaction” and that enforcement of the existing bylaw should be under the bylaw department – not the fire department.

Towndale, along with Couns. Eric Bergeron and Dean Hollingsworth voted against the open air wood burning ban.

Towndale also noted to Cornwall Newswatch that the memo from the medical officer of health on the effects of wood smoke included in the agenda and the fire chief’s report – an arrow in the quiver of council opponents of wood fires – was requested by the municipality and was not volunteered by Dr. Paul Roumeliotis.

The memo, addressed to Fire Chief Pierre Voisine, opens with “I have been asked to provide an opinion on the health effects of outdoor wood burning stoves and similar appliances” and closes with “It is my hope that the City of Cornwall enacts a comprehensive bylaw that can protect its population and natural environment against the effect of wood smoke.”

While the recommendation has been made, the law won’t actually be changed for another two weeks (the Sept. 23 council meeting).

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