DUNLAP — Eileen Caird does everything she can think of to improve the air quality inside her home, but when she steps out her front door, she feels “helpless and hopeless.”
Caird has severe allergies and serious respiratory issues that are exacerbated when people in her neighborhood burn leaves, trash and other debris outside. Her eyes water, her throat burns and the smoke permeates her house, but there isn’t much she can do about it. Outdoor burning is legal in the Pinecrest subdivision, where Caird and her husband live.
“It’s worse in the fall, especially in the last week of October and the first weeks of November, but it’s not seasonal,” Caird said.
‘THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM’
Bob Kronemyer, who lives in the Meadowood subdivision adjacent to Caird, said outdoor burning has been a problem in Elkhart County as far back as he can remember. Kronemyer moved to Elkhart in 1991 and bought a house outside city limits about five years later.
“For far too long, our community has been talking about outdoor burning, and Elkhart County has exhibited inaction and indifference to this issue,” Kronemyer said.
Like Caird, Kronemyer said outdoor burning is a year round issue, but what caught his attention recently was a report released in December by the United Health Foundation that ranked Indiana among the unhealthiest states in the nation. Outdoor burning, Kronemyer said, is an environmental and health issue that contributed to the low ranking.
Kronemyer describes outdoor burning as “the elephant in the room” in Elkhart County. He said the county should ban the practice and become more proactive with enforcement of the rules.
“A lot of communities have eliminated outdoor burning,” he said. “Why can’t we?”
‘KNOWLEDGE IS POWER’
Until three years ago, Terry Wiley and her husband burned leaves at their home off of C.R. 16, but a series of master naturalist and master gardener classes in Goshen changed their minds.
“It didn’t matter to me one way or another — burn them or bag them or whatever — but knowledge is power, and after I went through my classes, I really realized that I wanted to personally not burn anymore,” Wiley said.
Through the classes, Wiley learned about the environmental effects of burning leaves as well as other ways to dispose of natural debris, such as composting or bagging leaves up and dropping them off at the county’s landfill. She also learned about the health effects of inhaling smoke, a lesson that hit close to home. Wiley was diagnosed with asthma 10 years ago and has dealt with allergies since she was a child.
Wiley has tried talking to residents in her area about outdoor burning, but it doesn’t do any good, she said.
“They say they don’t have time to pick their leaves up to take them to the landfill,” she said. “Yes, it takes time, and you get dirty, but you have to leave the world a better place for future generations. That’s the way I look at it.”
Wiley has not contacted the Elkhart County commissioners about the issue but plans to in the future if the problem with burning continues.
“I don’t know if anything will ever come of it, but something needs to be done,” she said.
AN ANNUAL ISSUE
Caird keeps a file folder stuffed with newspaper clippings and email correspondence with local officials about outdoor burning. She has even kept a record of the days that people light fires in her neighborhood. She said she has been in communication with county commissioner Mike Yoder for roughly five years about the problem.
Outdoor burning is an topic that pops up in the county every year, especially in the spring and fall, Yoder said. Like Caird, Yoder also keeps a file folder on the issue.
“I have kept every letter that has ever been sent to me and every email to me about the burning issue,” Yoder said. “Smoking bans and open burning bans probably generate more letters to my desk than any other issue in the county.”
Outdoor burning is a major issue in terms of air quality, Yoder said.
Yoder said he would consider a ban on burning, but there are a couple of challenges he foresees.
“First of all, any time you pass an ordinance like this, you want to write it in such a way that it’s as easily enforceable as possible,” he said. “All of our residential areas in the county are zoned agricultural. By state law, agricultural areas are permitted to do open burning, so that’s one hurdle. We have to define the urbanized areas, and that gets a little bit tricky to do it in an easy way. It’s possible, but the other commissioners and our attorneys have kind of pushed back on that.”
But Caird takes issue with calling her neighborhood “agricultural.”
“If you drove out here, you would know that’s ridiculous,” she said. “I think there are 200 homes in the Pinecrest subdivision alone. This is not an agricultural area.”
The county is revising its zoning ordinance this year, which Yoder said could pave the way to create a law on open burning “that has a reasonable chance of being enforced.”
“If we had a new zoning ordinance that would say all of these higher density residential areas are residential zones instead of agricultural, then we could consider at the county level that in a residential zone of a certain density, open burning is not allowed,” he said.
Caird said she has been waiting on a concrete answer to outdoor burning problems for as long as she has lived in Elkhart County, which adds up to about 31 years. She worries that a solution may never come. Caird said she and her husband are not ready to move just yet, but when they do, air quality and environmental standards will be on the top of their checklist when searching for their new home outside of Elkhart County.