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Forsyth County Kicks a Nasty Habit

While North Carolina has banned backyard burning of household waste across the state, the ban's ultimate effectiveness depends on the will of each county. Forsyth County, located near the center of the state, is one county that is aggressively enforcing backyard burning bans and drastically reducing the number of residents burning trash.

Forsyth's active distribution of information about burning is responsible for the elimination of many burn piles and barrels.

"The most important step we have taken to reduce the burning of household waste is to educate residents. We have found that most people will comply with regulations if they know about them and understand the reasoning behind them." - Robert Fulp, Director of Forsyth County Environmental Department

Not only will people curb their own behavior, but the county has found that if residents are aware of the problems with backyard burning, they will report neighbors that burn as well. Reporting is a necessary component of Forsyth's complaint/response system of enforcement. "We make sure that people know they can call us if someone is burning," says Fulp.

To help spread this message, the county distributes information to libraries, schools, and the Home Builders Association; puts fliers into water bills and tax assessments; and even added a question to the General Contractor exam (to reduce construction fires). Information on open burning has also been incorporated into elementary school curriculums and discussed with children through ozone awareness activities and on Earth Day. "The entire county has become considerably more educated," says Fulp.

Yet no amount of education can eliminate backyard burning entirely; thus, Forsyth County assesses penalties when necessary, using a matrix of fine assessments to ensure fairness and consistency. Residents are fined for their first offense of burning garbage, but can appeal and have the penalty waved if they do not burn again within 2 years. If a resident is found burning a second time, he or she must pay the first and the second fine. Burning of yard waste is allowed, within certain parameters, in areas with no access to yard waste pickup. If a yard waste fire becomes a nuisance to neighbors, the burner will be warned first, then fined if he or she repeats the offense. To eliminate undue stress on the field enforcer and to ensure consistency of penalization, fines are never issued at the site of the fire. Instead, residents are sent a bill through the mail.

While the Environmental Department is the entity that issues fines for burning garbage in Forsyth, it does not work alone. The Fire Department, the Forestry Service, and the Solid Waste Division of the Health Department can report fires to the Environmental Department as well, which can then issue fines without actually being present at the burning.

In addition to education and penalties, Forsyth County offers alternatives to burning. The county hands out pamphlets on waste pickup options, composting, and waste reduction. Franchised waste providers must pick up household waste from any resident in the county who wants the service, and for a reasonable price. "Offering alternatives is the number one reason our enforcement has been well received," explains Fulp.

How do residents feel about the ban on burning? In general, they think it is a positive step. Fulp concluded that "residents are generally very happy with our enforcement. We have an opinion survey that we distribute and even the people we fine give us high ratings. The attitude of ‘burning is my right' has dropped off with a new generation of citizens growing up with air regulations; most people see the benefit to the burning regulations once they are explained. People want to be good neighbors."


Half of the reports that Forsyth County once received about open burning were in reference to builders burning construction waste. Burning leftovers from construction sites used to be commonplace, but Forsyth has begun cracking down on general contractors and others responsible for such detrimental fires—with success.

If a commercial organization is found burning refuse, it is fined $250 on the first offense, without a warning. This rule is based on Forsyth's widespread dissemination of anti-burning information to construction professionals, including a question about burning regulations on the general contractor exam. If the company is burning materials known to produce dioxins and furans, such as plastic, it is charged $500. If the company commits future offenses, fines rise to the high $1,000s. Forsyth County can assess up to a $10,000 fine, but would take the offender to court long before this point.

General contractors are held responsible for any fires on a construction site, even if the burns are conducted by a subcontractor. If the general contractor cannot be found, the landowner will be fined. Through these strict penalties, Forsyth County has almost eliminated construction fires.

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