Backyard burning has raised air quality concerns in Sooke. (File)

To burn or not to burn?

Vancouver Island authorities take a patchwork approach to wrestling with the issue of woodsmoke

Burning season is back, and Vancouver Island doesn’t really know what to do with it.

As property owners by the boatload return to igniting their woodstoves and lighting their backyard burn piles, they are also dealing with the usual debates about air quality, what is and isn’t acceptable from a health and legal perspective, and a cornucopia of bylaws that mean different rules for different people, depending on where you live — rules that may have changed recently, or are in the process of changing.

RELATED: Smoke from wildfires delivers jolt to Greater Victoria air quality

Provincial regulations govern larger fires used for agriculture, land clearing and other activities based on the venting index. That’s the ability for the smoke to clear as opposed to settling in the area surrounding the fire, as defined by provincial law.

Once you step inside municipal boundaries, things get more complicated.

Despite regulations governing backyard burning and the threat of hefty fines for anyone flouting the rules, Sooke Fire Rescue Chief Kenn Mount says his department regularly gets complaints from residents about air quality.

“We get a lot of calls from people who are more interested to the right to breathe clean air than they are with the right to burn yard waste,” Mount said.

“There are a lot of burning complaints, even when the burning is happening within compliance with the bylaws.”

Mount said difficulties arise when fires run afoul of the venting index requirements for burning.

Open burning and residential wood burning are the largest source of fine, suspended particulate matter known at PM 2.5. Port Alberni, Duncan and Courtenay are the most seriously affected communities on the Island, exceeding national air quality standards. Smoke levels tend to peak in November when open burning is most common.

The Alberni Valley has responded with a new Open Burning Smoke Control Regulation, which came into effect Sept. 15, focused on and coinciding with the traditional season for pile burning by land owners and industry.

In the past, large open burning was permitted for periods of three to four days; now it’s allowed for a maximum of 36 hours and there are new provisions to encourage single-day fires.

The new rules — which apply only to wood larger than 10 centimetres in diameter — are designed to reduce smouldering and smoke buildup that typically occurs when the sun goes down and winds drop. Instead, they encourage small, hot fires for more efficient combustion and reduced smoke.

Central Sanich, meanwhile, has focused on tightening the window for permitted residential burning while still giving burners some certainty and flexibility.

Central Saanich’s open burning season opens Nov. 1 and closes April 30, 2020.

It’s new bylaw will ‘transition’ yard waste burning days to days when atmospheric conditions are forecast favourable for the dispersion of smoke, he said in the report. At the same time, Fridays will remain available for burning regardless of the venting index.

The bylaw will also encourage alternatives to burning such as composting or redirecting to yard waste drop off facilities. The revisions will also give the fire chief the “discretion” to allow fires in poor venting conditions for bona fide reasons (such as storm clean up) and allow or prohibit fires for reason of fire safety.

Sooke Councillor Tony St-Pierre admits that his own agricultural activities require him to burn garden waste, says he’s well aware of the venting index and always tries to minimize smoke from his fires.

“First off, we compost as much as possible and really cut down on what’s left. But burning is needed from time to time and when we burn we burn very hot and there isn’t much smoke,” St-Pierre said. “But if we had a drop-off spot for garden waste we could possibly do away with the backyard burns completely.”

RELATED: New Island-made film highlights the cost of wood heating

The question of whether to permit or prohibit yard waste fires has proven divisive, with politicians trying to account for people’s health concerns while considering those who depend on the practice to maintain their properties.

What isn’t up for debate is the unhealthiness of wood smoke

Central Saanich started to look at revising its bylaw after receiving an Island Health letter in October 2017 that raised concerns about the actual and potential health effects of domestic wood burning and backyard burning including lung cancer.

Island communities have been receiving similar warnings for years, but have consistently bogged down addressing those warnings based on arguments about how much regulation is enough.

Witness the following debate in the Comox Valley, where the regional district is no longer providing rebates to replace old woodstoves with new woodstoves. Instead, rebates have been increased for gas, propane and pellet stoves

Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association of Canada board member Jason VanGarderen lobbied officials for the continued use of wood stoves, saying wood heat is affordable, and secure in terms of hydro interruptions.

“Often when we’re considering ways to address air quality, new wood stoves and appliances become a target,” said VanGarderen, general manager of Concorde Distributing Inc. “It’s thought, ‘let’s ban these appliances and we’ll see immediate improvements.’ We’re suggesting that by banning the new appliances, you probably won’t see much improvement. In the last 20 years, especially in the last five years, the technology in wood stoves has improved drastically.” VanGarderen added dry, seasoned wood “makes a world of difference.”

But according to Breathe Clean Air Comox Valley, dry wood and new stoves are not a solution to the air quality issue.

“Reducing pollution by a small percentage is not what we need,” group co-ordinator Jennell Ellis said. “We need much more dramatic reduction, and the only way to get that is to move people away from wood heating in populated areas.”

She said studies indicate most people run stoves four to five times above certification levels.

“What a stove is certified for is not how it’s used in the real world,” Ellis said, noting a UK study showed one eco-certified stove equals 18 diesel cars running, in terms of fine particulate matter.

Another concern tied to both backyard and woodstove burning is the range of material being torched.

“We have people burning everything from yard waste to mattresses and couches right now. That has to stop,” St. Pierre said.

“We get complaints when people burn things like plastics in their open fireplaces,” Mount said.

“Not only is that the wrong thing to do from an air quality perspective, it also builds up creosote and can easily result in a chimney fire.”

According to Cowichan Valley Regional District board chair Ian Morrison, it’s about providing alternatives and people making the decision to use them.

“CVRD recycling centres accept yard waste free of charge, and yard waste like leaves makes great compost,” said the release.

There’s also an argument to leave the leaves on the ground: they make good hiding spots for bees and butterflies over the winter. They’re also fun to jump in.

“And those few without options who are still planning to burn need to check the venting index prior to lighting up to ensure they aren’t needlessly polluting the air we’re breathing,” Morrison said.

Editorial: Archaic backyard burning a health hazard and needs to stop

Here are current regulations for some select south Island locations

Cowichan Valley Regional District

Residents of all nine electoral areas are permitted to burn between Oct. 15 and Nov. 15. Only one burn pile no larger than two square metres is permitted and only untreated natural wood, prunings and branches can be burned. The pile must be at least 10 metres from all property lines. Burning can only happen between 7 a.m. and sunset of the same day, and is only allowed when the BC Southern Vancouver Island Venting Index is rated good.

Duncan, Ladysmith and Lake Cowichan

No backyard burning at all.

North Cowichan

Burning within the urban containment boundary can only occur with a permit on properties larger than two acres and just between Sept. 15 and Nov. 30 and March 15 and April 15 and once again only when the provincial venting index is good. Open burns are prohibited entirely on properties less than two acres in size. Campfires are still allowed.


Burning is permitted from Oct. 1 to May 31 from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. only. Fires must be extinguished by 6 p.m., that means no smouldering fires. Only dry leaves, tree trimmings and residential yard debris are acceptable burning materials. Burning of construction waste, demolition debris, wet garbage, food or household waste, plastic, rubber, asphalt shingles or other similar materials is prohibited. Beach fires are prohibited. Land clearing is allowed with a permit.


Only people on individually-owned residential properties that are 2,023 square metres or greater in size can burn between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30 and March 15 and April 15. They must maintain a clearance of six metres from a structure and three metres from shrubbery and wooden fences. The base must be no larger than 1.5 metres by 1.5 metres and extinguishing equipment must be readily available. Only two permits per burning season are allowed per applicant and a maximum of 20 per day are given out.


Open burning is prohibited, as are beach fires, camp fires and land clearing, demolition and construction waste fires.

View Royal

There is no outdoor burning permitted in View Royal. That includes open air fires and fires in incinerators. The burning ban does not apply to indoor residential fireplaces, wood stoves, solid fuel burning appliances, outdoor gas-fired appliances, outdoor appliances that use charcoal briquettes, ceremonial burns on land receiving the Town’s fire protection service, fires for the purposes of training the Town’s fire department.

For the regulations within your municipality or regional district, check with the local fire department or local government office.

— with files from Black Press

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