New oversight set on burning sugar cane fields _lowres

This photo, submtited by Stacey Judice, was taken behind the Brocke Pointe subdivision in Carencro in December 2013.

Stacey Judice remembers the roar and towering flames of the burning sugar cane just a few feet from the wooden fence around the Brock Pointe subdivision where she lives near Carencro.

It was so close you could feel the heat, which scorched a neighbor’s yard, she said of a particularly intense field burn in December.

The sight of burning fields marks the cane harvest season in south Louisiana, but those fires have been the subject of growing complaints as more rural subdivisions sprout amid the farms.

Legislation passed this session sets up a process to make it easier for such complaints to be addressed.

“We are not trying to hurt farmers at all. It’s a matter of does it have to be that close,” Judice said.

State Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, who sponsored the measure, said he was moved to act in part by images he saw of burning cane behind the Brock Pointe subdivision.

It seemed no one was clear as to who had authority to hear and investigate concerns about cane fires, Cortez said, and the recently passed legislation gives that job to the state commissioner of agriculture and forestry — currently Mike Strain.

The enforcement mechanism is in the commissioner’s power to revoke the state certification for prescribed burns.

A farmer could light cane without the authorization, but it offers protections from legal liability for fire damage, and losing the authorization could make it difficult to obtain affordable insurance, Cortez said.

“If you have a prescribed burn certification, you are considered nonnegligent if something happens,” Cortez said.

The state’s prescribed burn certification is given to farmers trained on best practices for controlled fires, such as how to monitor wind conditions to ensure smoke and ash aren’t blown onto a roadway or into heavily populated areas.

“It’s a pretty intense course,” said state Sen. R.L. “Bret” Allain, R-Franklin, a sugar cane farmer who supported Cortez’s bill.

But Allain said there has never been a clear system in place to ensure farmers were always acting on what they learned.

“We instituted this program but really never had any teeth in it,” he said.

Still, Allain said he believes badly managed cane fires are rare.

“There have always been a couple of bad actors. In any industry, that happens,” he said.

Complaints generally are about the burning of cane while it is still standing in the field.

Burning the cane before harvest removes the leaves, making it easier on farm equipment, but burning standing cane sometimes results in big flames, large plumes of smoke and lots of drifting ash.

Allain said he and many other farmers in the region acknowledge those issues and instead harvest the cane first, then burn the leftover debris on the ground.

Burning the debris keeps it from suppressing the growth of the next crop, he said.

Burning standing cane is not considered a bad practice under the state’s prescribed burning guidelines, and it remains to be seen what impact the new complaint process will have, because fire, smoke and ash are a natural byproduct of sugar cane farming in south Louisiana.

Strain said perhaps local governments should consider larger buffer zones to separate farms and residential areas or require some form of notice when homes are sold in agricultural areas.

“I think there needs to be some degree of disclosure that you are moving into a sugar cane field,” he said.