The burning question is one too important to be left to rumor or seat of the pants authority. One really needs to know because the consequences of getting it wrong could be serious. You can be fined $500 for a first violation and even more if you burn down a forest.
The regulations of the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) are where the burn regulations are reduced to prose. They provide for a general prohibition on open fires. Then there are exceptions to this general rule. Those exceptions, 12 in number, are set out in Section 215.3 of the DEC regulations. Among the more important exceptions are (a), (d) and (l).
Subsection (a) applies to any town with a population of 20,000 or less; in such towns on-site burning is permitted of “downed tree limbs and branches less than six inches in diameter and eight feet in length” but not between March 15 and May 15.
Subdivision (d) provides an exception for the burning of agricultural wastes on “valid agricultural” operations of more than five acres “actively devoted to agricultural or horticultural use” and the wastes are “capable of being fully burned in a 24 hour period.”
Subdivision (l) is an open-ended catch-all: “Individual open fires that are otherwise authorized under the Environmental Conservation Law, or by rule or regulation of the department.” The only way to find out if a fire is “otherwise” authorized is to ask a DEC official, but you had better get it in writing.
According to statements made by the DEC on its website, leaves can never be burned unless they are attached to branches that fit into subdivision (a).
Burning results in the release of greenhouse gases and air pollutants. The DEC regulations are designed to reduce those gases and pollutants, but recognizes that certain burning via “open fires” is warranted as a justifiable exception. Exceptions to general rules are narrowly interpreted.
Statements made by Governor Cuomo promote awareness of burning in a dry spell. Brush fires can easily turn into forest fires. The period of March 15 to May 15 is when many brush fires occur; they sometimes result in forest fires.