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Leaf burning getting extinguished in McHenry County

Published: Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013 11:49 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013 11:57 p.m. CDT
(Lathan Goumas –
Mile Nelson of MDC Environmental Services dumps a garbage can full of leaves in the back of a dumptruck Tuesday as he picks up leaves and yard clippings in Crystal Lake. Crystal Lake runs a leaf pickup program for its residents as an alternative to burning fallen leaves.

Beverly Meuch spent nearly five years leaving leaves behind.

Every other weekend, the Wonder Lake resident would travel to the south suburbs to stay with family to escape the constant clouds of smoke that would seep in through her windows as neighbors burned piles of leaves.

Meuch was not the only one suffering from watery eyes, an itchy throat and difficulty breathing.

The McHenry County Department of Health would receive more than 600 calls a year for leaf-burning complaints. Hundreds more came into municipal police departments.

But in 2008, with Meuch as a primary proponent, McHenry County approved ordinances placing heavy restrictions on burning leaves.

Now, the health department receives roughly 100 calls for the season.

“It was difficult to enforce at first,” Meuch said of the ordinance. “Once there were ways to collect leaves for areas in the unincorporated part of the county; that is when the ordinance became really effective.”

Kristy Hecke, solid waste manager for the county health department, said the alternative methods for yard waste disposal have been a major contributor to reducing open burns – a practice that releases carcinogens into the air and causes health problems for people with asthma, emphysema and other cardiovascular conditions that affect roughly one-third of the McHenry County population.

Since the restrictions were put in place, the county has increased its waste haulers from 10 to 18, and most municipalities have entered into agreements with haulers to add yard waste to recycling and garbage disposal.

Hecke said there also are beneficial methods of disposal. She said mowing lawns at higher cuts would not leave clumps of grass so the clippings would not need to be removed and could help the soil. Residents also could use backyard composting, which would reduce the waste by 80 percent with the remaining used to enrich soil.

Mulching leaves also could help flower beds and gardens reduce weeds and soil erosion, Hecke said.

“It’s a nice, natural habitat benefit,” she said.

The reduction in open-burning violations over the past few years has been a welcomed change for Fire Marshal Ernest Link of the Huntley Fire Protection District.

Link said the department would be bogged down with calls for emergency medical services because people had trouble breathing from the smoke. It was not uncommon for people to burn leaves in their front yards by sidewalks.

“People couldn’t see on Route 47 or Algonquin Road sometimes because of all the smoke rolling through,” Link said. “But the main reason for the ordinance was because it was becoming a major health concern.”

As yard waste disposal picks up, McHenry County Department of Health spokeswoman Debra Quackenbush urged residents to call in complaints or apply for permit exceptions to the ordinance at 815-334-4585 or after hours at 815-344-7421.

Open-burning restrictions

• Almost every municipality has a total prohibition on open burning of yard waste, which includes grass, shrubbery cuttings, leaves and tree limbs. For those that do not, these are the countywide restrictions.

• Residents may burn landscape waste on Saturdays and Sundays during April, May, October and November if the burn area meets the setback requirements of at least 100 feet from a school, business, church or house and at least 50 feet from a barn, shed or detached garage.

• Burns may take place only between dusk and dawn, and all materials must have been generated onsite.

• Burns are permitted only when the winds are less than 10 mph and must be supervised by an individual at least 18 years old.

• A fire extinguisher, garden hose or water source must be available by the burning site.

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