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Traditional flag-burning event spurned by city officials

Local golf course hosting public ceremony this Saturday, June 14

Troy Monholland, who heads up the American Legion’s traditional flag retirement ceremony in this area, isn’t all that pleased with the reception he got from city officials.

Monholland, who for the last few years has cared for the American flags at Sunnyside’s Sunnyview Park and has regularly collected unserviceable flags from friends and neighbors, didn’t figure he’d be scrambling on finding a venue for this year’s flag-burning ceremony.

City officials, citing Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency regulations, torpedoed his plans to burn the worn and tattered American flags in front of the Sunnyside Fire Station.

“I thought this ceremony for disposal of unserviceable flags could be held in front of our new Sunnyside city fire station.

“I thought we could invite the community to bring their tattered flags to be retired. What a perfect opportunity to show the public how a flag is properly retired, and a wonderful opportunity for our youth to see that veterans still care.

“And the location! What better place to hold this event? The station is staffed with brave men and women who wear the American flag on their shoulder every day. This location would also be the safest,” he said.

Instead, Monholland said Sunnyside Fire Chief Aaron Markham cited both outdoor burning and barrel burning restrictions, and said when meeting with Markham the fire chief expressed concerns the Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency could send officials into the city to enforce its sanctions.

“He (Markham) was adamant that the fire station would not host this event,” said Monholland, who serves as the membership chairman for this district of the Department of Washington American Legion.

Since then, Monholland has secured a different site to stage the flag-burning ceremony. And, throwing a bit of caution to the wind, will proceed with the traditional ceremony instead of following the special requirements that are currently on the books.

The new venue for the Saturday, June 14, ceremony is Black Rock Creek Golf Course, situated just about halfway between Sunnyside and Grandview. Monholland said all Lower Valley residents are invited to attend the 8 p.m. event Saturday, which appropriately falls on Flag Day.

Community residents are also urged to bring any worn and tattered American flags they possess, so they, too, can be properly retired along with the nearly 20 U.S. flags that are already marked for burning.

The president of the board of directors at Black Rock Creek, Chuck Stegeman, confirmed the local golf course will host the June 14 event.

“We want to make sure our veterans have a place to conduct their business,” Stegeman said.

As it turns out, the Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency is pretty much turning a blind eye to the June 14 ceremony.

The spokesman for the agency, Mark Edler, confirmed that special flag-burning regulations are on the books, but said no one from his office will be showing up this coming Saturday to monitor the event.

“Not unless we’re there to pay tribute to the flag,” Edler said.

Clean Air officials, he added, have long recognized the tradition of disposing of U.S. flags.

The annual flag retirement ceremony in years past was conducted in front of the fire station in Wapato, Monholland’s hometown before he pulled up roots and moved to Sunnyside several years ago.

The Vietnam War veteran said he was saddened that his efforts this year to burn the flags, per American Legion protocol, were shunned by both Sunnyside and Grandview. Neither city, said Monholland, was willing to grant permission for the event to be staged there.

Markham, contacted this past Tuesday, said the Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency has ultimate jurisdiction when it comes to burning within the city limits. He also said burn barrels have been outlawed since the mid-1980s.

“We don’t want to give the perception to the public that burn barrels are OK to use,” he said.

Markham said City Manager Don Day was informed of the situation, and he contacted Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency officials.

The agency, said Markham, did respond, noting the flag-burning ceremony falls under a religious-type exemption.

The problem, however, is that the American Legion’s protocol for dipping the flags in kerosene and using a burn barrel to dispose of the flags does not adhere to the guidelines established by the Clean Air Agency.

Day informed Monholland that the city would allow the ceremony to be held in Sunnyside, providing the Clean Air Agency restrictions are met. Day outlined for Monholland that the burn would have to take place in some sort of contained fire ring or portable outdoor fireplace. Monholland said Day suggested the ceremony be held in the parking lot behind city hall.

“I appreciate Mr. Day’s efforts, I truly do, but spraying just lighter fluid on the flags – some of which are very thick and very large – it could end up being a six to eight-hour process,” Monholland said.

“Retiring large flags like I have cannot be done with a small amount of lighter fluid,” said Monholland. “That is the reason the American Legion suggests kerosene.”

He said the Clean Air Agency also requests that the ceremony be as brief as possible.

“This is impossible to do with the accelerant prescribed,” said Monholland.

“The use of a burn barrel is strictly prohibited,” Monholland continued, “But without a barrel, our veterans would be forced to hold our flags over the flames. And I assure you, this proves to be very physical and in my opinion, impossible. These large flags get very heavy and cumbersome.”

Markham, as well as Sunnyside Mayor Jim Restucci and Deputy Mayor Theresa Hancock, all noted that due to time constraints, trying to accommodate the veterans’ request for the city to host the flag retirement ceremony wasn’t feasible on such short notice.

The Sunnyside fire chief did express an interest, though, in researching and possibly working to change the local fire code so that an annual flag-burning ceremony can be held here.

“There’s no reason we can’t do this by Flag Day next year,” Markham said. “And with our downtown veterans’ plaza, that would be an ideal place to hold the event.”

Restucci, himself a military veteran, said with the rules and regulations as they are, it might be more prudent to hold a ceremonial event in Sunnyside, rather than an actual flag-burning.

“The (American) Legion’s protocol for disposing of flags was probably written 50 years ago,” said the Sunnyside mayor. “I’m sure that with the make-up of flags today, made of polypropylene or some other similar substance that is chemically treated, they’re all dangerous to burn.

“I would think noxious fumes are the main concern of both our fire chief and the Clean Air Agency,” Restucci said.

“But I would hope we would be able to find some kind of exemption to the Clean Air regulations so Sunnyside could be the site for a ceremony of this type,” he added.

Hancock, too, said she would support such an effort for a flag disposal ceremony in Sunnyside.

“At this point, with just a couple of weeks to work on it, it’s been handled internally with our city staff,” said Hancock. “But if Council as a whole wants to take this on, I would support those efforts.

“Personally, I think our city manager did his best to make it happen this year,” she added.

Monholland, too, praises Day’s efforts on behalf of the veterans, but said he is still disappointed the city didn’t take a more welcoming approach to hosting the longtime, traditional military ceremony.

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