Burn Regulations for
Santa Cruz County

Jeff Powell

The backyard-burn season is approaching, but  you need to know the specific rules to follow. Different rules govern different burn types, and the rules vary greatly between Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. This article covers the rules that apply to the unincorporated parts of Santa Cruz County.  Next month’s article will cover Santa Clara County. Two notes: backyard burning is not allowed in Santa Clara County, and since the Summit Fire, all burns of any type, including agricultural burns, are suspended until further notice.

Backyard-burns are allowed in the unincorporated parts of Santa Cruz County without a permit, but strict rules apply. These burns let property owners dispose of yard trimmings and brush. Burning garbage is prohibited statewide.

Backyard-burn season usually runs from December 1 through April 30, but those dates can change. To determine if burning is allowed, first call 1-800-Cal-Burn to get the burn-day status from the pollution-control district. If it is a “permissive-burn day,” call your local fire station (Burrell 408-353-1022 or Saratoga Summit 408-867-3625). Tell them you plan to burn, and ask if CalFire has disallowed burns for some reason.

Material to be burned must be completely dry. Do not burn anything that has recently been rained on.  Large items like stumps must have been drying for at least 120 days. Limbs over two-inches in diameter must have dried for at least sixty days, branches and limbs less than two inches in diameter must have dried for at least thirty days, and green cuttings must have dried for a minimum of ten days. Never burn poison oak or poison ivy. Your pile must be loosely stacked to allow good air flow and minimize smoke production. Burning that impacts neighbors or creates a public nuisance is prohibited.

Your burn pile must be no bigger than four feet in any dimension, and you must have 2.5 times the height of the pile in clear earth around it. For example, a four-foot-high pile must have ten feet of bare soil all the way around it. You may have only one burn pile, and a responsible adult must be present at all times. Backyard burns must be fully extinguished, with water, before nightfall. Never leave a burn pile smoldering overnight. Winds can change, and the ashes could start a major fire.

If you violate these rules, you may be cited and fined. If your burn escapes, you will be responsible for the costs to suppress the fire, any property damage, and for any injuries that occur. Consider chipping, composting, or hauling your trimmings to the landfill for recycling as safer and less polluting alternatives.

Agricultural burns have different rules. To qualify for an agricultural burn, you must have commercial income generated by the vegetation in question, or you must be donating substantial produce to a food bank.  A few fruit trees do not qualify for an agricultural burn permit, but a Christmas tree farm, orchard, or vineyard would qualify.

Agriculture burns require a permit. They may happen any time during the year, but only on permissive-burn days as established by the pollution-control district. Agricultural burns may be larger than backyard burns but must be manageable with the equipment available. They may also last longer. They have the same requirements for clearance around the pile and for drying times. The burn should generate as little smoke as possible.

Burn permits are issued by your local fire station and are generally valid for a limited duration. CalFire will inspect your site to be sure your burn is safe before issuing the permit. Call Burrell or Saratoga Summit fire stations for more information. Depending on the circumstances, you may also need a smoke-production permit from the pollution-control district.

Hazard Reduction Burns are special-case burn permits issued to help property owners clear vegetation when there is no way to chip, haul, or otherwise dispose of it. Such burns are tightly controlled, and permits may be written for very specific circumstances, specifying things like wind speed and humidity.

As with agricultural burns, hazard-reduction burns can happen any time the permit allows. An inspection is required first, and all the pollution-control rules apply. Call your CalFire station for more information.

The recent fire season, starting with the Summit fire, and including the Martin and Trabing fires, should cause everyone to think carefully before burning. We live in a forest. There are a lot of us here, and what we do affects others. If you must burn, do so carefully and legally.


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