LEBANON, Ore. — The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has issued a fine of $17,869 against a Willamette Valley ranch for a burn pile that included 40 dead animals, furniture and other garbage.
“I think that’s probably the second time I can recall anything like this in our district,” said John Tacy, division chief of operations for Lebanon Fire District. “It’s outside the scope of agricultural burning. There’s always a number of slash or ditch lines that get burned. But nothing like this. And I’ve been with the fire department 30-some years.”
The incident occurred May 13, when the Lebanon Fire Department responded to a complaint about a fire that smelled like “roasting tires.” The incident was included in a year-end report from DEQ.
Fire Marshal Jason Bolen and Lt. Michael Maynard arrived seven minutes later at property owned by ranchers Mark and Bethany Wahl of Wahl Livestock LLC.
According to the district’s records, Bolen asked Mark Wahl if it was OK to look at the burn pile. Wahl said yes, inviting Bolen and Maynard onto his property in a manner that was, according to the department, “cordial.”
The burn heap, records indicate, was piled 6 feet tall with 35 dead cattle, five dead sheep, decomposable garbage, plastics, asphaltic materials, furniture and petroleum products. Open burning of those materials is prohibited in Oregon, according to DEQ.
According to the report, the pile was also burning unattended. Wahl disputes this, telling the Capital Press he was about 400 feet away.
Bolen told Wahl his activity was illegal, and the crew got to work. Two hours and 2,500 gallons of water later, the fire was extinguished.
But for the Wahls, the trouble was just beginning.
The fire department is required to report burning of illegal substances to DEQ, according to Tacy. DEQ officers then contacted Wahl to investigate.
“The DEQ called,” said Wahl. “They wanted to look at the burn pile, but I did not give them permission to come on the premises.”
Instead, Wahl sent DEQ a receipt showing that he had properly disposed of the carcasses after the fire was put out.
The animals had died from pneumonia within a 30-day span, Wahl said.
DEQ, blocked from investigating Wahl’s land, based its case on fire district records and fined the couple $17,869 for burning illegal materials, improper disposal of animal carcasses and leaving an open burn unattended.
Wahl said they are appealing the fine.
“The damage never happened,” Wahl told the Capital Press. “The fire only burned for max 20 minutes. What burned up was some straw and tree limbs. The dead never burned, never went up in smoke. The deads weren’t even in the brush pile, just right next to it. We cleaned up the whole pile and exported it. So that’s why we’re appealing the fine.”
As fire regulations have stiffened and people have become more educated about environmental hazards through the years incidents such as this are becoming less common, explained Tacy of the fire district.
“When I was a kid, everybody had a burn barrel,” said Tacy. “And 30 years ago, people used to just pile up all their garbage and burn it. I wouldn’t say that’s rare now, but it’s not happening to the extent that it was anymore.”
Tacy said he encourages people to contact their local fire agency during burn season and ask about specific fire regulations in their area.