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updated: 6/25/2012 10:56 PM

Enforcement of fire pit laws a tricky situation in St. Charles

St. Charles fire department tries to mediate disputes

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Dealing with outdoor fires has been the pits for St. Charles officials in recent weeks.

The fire department is seeing an uptick in complaints related to outdoor fire pits. From May 1, 2011, to May 1, 2012, there were 22 calls to the fire department regarding fire pits.

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But there have been five complaints in the past month, primarily stemming from an ongoing neighborhood dispute on Moore Avenue. Fire officials said they hope to mediate that problem with some discussion between neighbors.

Dealing with fire pits is an often tricky task whenever a complaint arises in the city, said Deputy Fire Chief Joe Schelstreet at Monday's meeting of the Government Services Committee.

The current city laws on fire pits come from the International Fire Code. That code says fire pits are allowed under specific weather conditions and if they meet certain safety requirements, such as being placed a safe distance from a house. Those aspects of the law are usually cut and dried when it comes to enforcement.

It's when someone complains about someone else's fire pit that fire officials have to use their own best judgment, Schelstreet said.

"The code is very specific in that any open burning that is offensive or objectionable, those fires are to be extinguished," he said.

But a smoky fire that is objectionable for a neighbor with asthma may not be objectionable to anyone else. Schelstreet said fire officials will often ask a resident to voluntarily extinguish a fire if it's bothering someone.

If the resident refuses, then the fire official must determine on the spot if the fire is truly objectionable to a degree that the resident must be forced to extinguish the fire.

Alderman Jim Martin said he sees how the wording of the law could fuel arguments between neighbors and headaches for the fire department.

"In some events, could it be that a neighbor is being a little bit overly reactive?" Martin said. "I mean, if I didn't like fire pits, and my neighbor had a fire pit, I could object every time my neighbor lights a match."

"That's something we don't empower our folks to go after," Schelstreet said of possibly cracking down on people making excessive complaints.

Aldermen agreed the best approach is to inform residents who have fire pits, and people who complain about them, specifically what the law allows and let neighbors sort out their own differences.

Fire: Alderman says wording of law could trigger arguments between neighbors

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