Where There’s Smoke, There’s a Permit

I try not to live in fear, but as you read these words, I am really jittery. About fire. I do not like fire.

I spent nearly a quarter-century living in the endlessly hot, dry Arizona desert, where you don’t live in a house, you live in a tinderbox.

A few nights before my wife and I were scheduled to fly to Massachusetts and begin hunting for a house in Ipswich, our smoke alarm started screaming. We followed the smoke downstairs to our kitchen, where our Bosch dishwasher was spewing flames.

The kids and I all got out safely, but my wife grabbed the garden house and charged back inside to fight back.

Three days later, we were in Ipswich, Massachusetts, making an offer on a house on outer Linebrook Road. It was brutally cold. The ground was covered in a foot-thick shell of icy snow. Fire danger? No way. We’ll be safe here, I said to myself.

So you can imagine my horror when I learned — as a resident of Ipswich — that the Town allows something they call “open burning.”

From January 15th to May 1st, people are invited pay $10 for the fun of setting fires. Out in the open! Anytime from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.! Six solid hours of life-threatening peril! It’s madness!

You just have to get a “burn permit” in advance, and activate your permit online on the day you plan to burn. By 9 each morning, the Ipswich Fire Department decides whether to allow burning that day, based on various conditions — whether the wind is likely to carry your fire into Rowley, for example, or the air is so dry, just striking a match will make something go kaboom. If conditions are deemed hazardous, your permit won’t be activated that day. But of course, since the weather in New England is so changeable, you can come back and request permission the next day, and the next, and the day after that — 106 total days of potential conflagration.

Perhaps most disturbing of all are the lists of what you can burn and what you can’t. There is so much stuff on the “allowed to burn” list, it’s a miracle the Town of Ipswich is still standing.

Driftwood! From our spectacular beach! Driftwood is beautiful, it’s romantic, it’s almost poetic. But no. The Town of Ipswich yawns and lights a fat cigar and says, “Burn it.”

Raspberry stalks? Burn them. No other parts of the raspberry plant, mind you. But the stalks? We hate  the stalks. And not the stalks of any other berry. Just the raspberry stalks. Why do we hate the raspberry stalks? I have no idea. Probably some superstition harking back to the witch-trial era.

Forestry debris — if it’s not from commercial or industrial land clearing — is allowed. So if you have a woodsy area on your property, and you clear it out, you can burn that stuff.

Then, however: a Catch-22.

Take a look at the “not allowed” list: No grass or hay, no stumps, no household trash. (And no tires, thank goodness, globs of smelly black smoke excreting into the atmosphere. Take your tires to West Virginia if you’re gonna burn them.)

But what’s on the very top line of the “not allowed” list? Leaves

So if you clear that woodsy area, and you want to burn the debris, I guess first you’ll have to pick out all the leaves. This could certainly be quite time-consuming, and tiresome, if you had to do it all by yourself. But don’t do it all by yourself. Employ some Yankee ingenuity. Organize a leaf-picking party. This has been a charming, time-honored New England tradition for generations; or if it hasn’t been, it should have been. Invite your neighbors to sit in a circle around your pile of forestry debris — boys in their knickers, girls in their bonnets — and as everyone picks the leaves out, they sing fun songs or recite light verse or tell amusing stories of yore.

You’re also allowed to burn fungus-infected elm wood, and infected bee hives. Not sure whether you have to pick out the fungus. Or the bees.

But it all seems awfully risky to me, with or without leaves, fungus, or bees. April is our worst month for brush fires, with last year’s dead grass, leaves, and wood lying all around — yet April is right there in the heart of “open burning” season. I think the only way to do “open burning” safely is to eliminate the “burning” part. How about “open burial”? No permit required.


Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and keeps a bucket of water nearby at all times. Explore his odd world at DougBrendel.com if you dare.

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