By J. Herwick
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With the massive growth in the interest and use of backyard fire pits in recent years and increasing national and local government concerns regarding out-of-control wildfires and the resulting restrictions, you may be asking yourself, can I have a fire pit in my backyard?
Vague open-burn laws and restrictions imposed during no-burn periods often leave the homeowner wondering what applies to them and whether it's worth the effort of looking into it.
Before you put good money down to purchase a fire pit of any type, having a good grasp of common U.S. outdoor fire safety laws and their requisite terms, will save you a lot of time, inconvenience, and potentially, money.
Common items to ponder if you are concerned about the “legalities” of fire pit use in your area:
- What is considered a recreational fire in your area
- What “open-burning” is and if it is legal in your area; seek additional information on fire size limitations, the amount of fuel permitted, and whether there are certain periods during the year in which open-burning can be conducted
- What types of fires require a county or other local license in your area
- If a local ordinance imposes a required fire pit distance from structures
Let me state before I go on, that I am not an attorney, nor do I play one on TV. Please consult with the local fire department and/or state and local fire safety officials for specifics on the legality of, and operational restrictions on, fire pits in your area.
Restrictions vary from municipality to municipality and not knowing local fire safety laws won’t be a way out should you be cited for non-compliance.
What is a Recreational Fire?
The county I live in Virginia, not far from Washington D.C, defines a recreational fire as:
“An outdoor fire burning materials, other than rubbish, where the fuel being burned is not contained in an incinerator, outdoor fireplace, barbecue grill, or barbecue pit, and has a total fuel area of three feet or less in diameter and two feet or less in height for pleasure, religious, ceremonial, cooking, warmth, or similar purposes.” (Source: PWC Gov)
After looking at the local fire codes of about 10 municipalities across the U.S., the definition of a recreational fire is generally the same.
The key takeaways here are:
- Standard fire pit fuel (firewood, kindling, tinder, etc.) should be used, not garbage or any other kind of waste.
- The fire is being burned in the open (not in an enclosed space such as a grill, fireplace, etc.) via a fire pit, bonfire, or campfire or a similar method.
- The fuel area should not exceed a local limit (varies by municipality).
- Defined purposes for the fire are spelled out and cover just about every non-work-related use
- This was left off the definition from my local area, but recreational fire distance from structures is regularly mentioned in many fire codes throughout the U.S. More on that below in the section titled How Far Away Should My Fire Pit Be From My House?
What is Open Burning?
We’ll go back to my local code again as an example because I don't know if I could say it any better:
“The burning of materials wherein products of combustion are emitted directly into the ambient air without passing through a stack or chimney from an enclosed chamber. Open burning does not include road flares smudge pots and similar devices associated with safety or occupational uses typically considered open flames or recreations fires.” (Source: PWC Gov)
Pretty self-explanatory and in line with the general definition of open burning throughout the U.S.; in a nutshell…an outdoor fire where the smoke is expelled into the open air vice a chimney.
This is important because some municipalities, like New York City (sorry NYC readers), have bans on all open burning.
Your municipality may have similar restrictions, so keep an eye out for the phrase when doing your homework on local fire safety laws.
Is a Fire Pit Open Burning?
The answer is generally yes. However, some municipalities may define open burning differently due to the fact that while fire pits expel smoke directly into the air, many are off the ground and less likely to come in contact with combustible materials that could start a larger fire.
This is why it is so important that you know your local laws. Make sure you understand the local definition of open burning.
What Types of Open Burn Fires Require a Permit?
Typically, open burn fires like fire pits and small campfires won’t require a burn permit.
Burn permits are typically reserved for non-recreational purposes such as waste disposal and other industrial purposes.
Check with your local fire department to be sure.
Can I Have a Fire Pit in My Backyard During a Temporary Burn Ban?
Restrictions on burning of all types during temporary burn bans vary from state to state.
In some states, you can use a fire pit or small campfire during a burn ban and in some, you can’t.
In others, burning of any kind is restricted during a burn ban, even indoor fireplaces, unless it's the only source of heat in the structure.
Make sure to familiarize yourself with how your state typically imposes and enforces burn bans and know what the situation is each time there is a ban so you are in compliance.
If you “open-burn” during a temporary ban when you shouldn’t be and accidentally start a fire that spreads, you may be held financially and criminally liable for the response effort and the resulting fire damage.
How Far Away Should My Fire Pit Be From My House?
If after all of this you determine you are able to have a fire pit in your backyard, be sure to check local ordinances for the required fire pit distance from structures, specifically your home.
The usual distance is between 20 and 30 feet, but please check local law to make sure.
If you are looking to have a licensed contractor install a fixed fire pit, wood-burning or gas, they can also advise you on local code related to safe and compliant site selection during the process.
Conclusion: Can I have a fire pit in my backyard?
As of mid-2019, there are 3,147 counties in the U.S. each with its own set of fire safety regulations.
There is much these municipalities have in common with regard to fire regulation, but like most things, the devil is in the details. Know those details.
My goal for this article was to provide you with a general awareness of existing fire safety laws and give you a few things to think about when checking into your local laws.
The topics I included are not an all-inclusive list of legal considerations, just a starting point.
I hope the answer to the “can I have a fire pit in my backyard?” question is clearer for you and that you are further on your way to sitting by a fire pit in your backyard in no time.
For more on topics related to fire pits and the home check out my article DOES a fire pit raise property values? (IF so, how Much?!). If you plan on selling your home sometime in the near future a fire pit might a good addition to increase your home's value.
Thanks again for reading!
How can I find out if there is a burn ban in my area?
It sounds like a no-brainer but the quickest way, if you are able, is to Google (or use Bing, Yahoo, whatever) “burn ban in my area.”
If your mobile device or laptop has its location settings activated, Google, or whatever search engine you use, should give you results based on where you are at present.
If you are using a computer at home you should get local results as well even if you have the location service turned off.
Look for local government public safety notices and news reports about potential burn bans.
Additionally, your state’s department of natural resources or forestry are great resource and should be posting up-to-date burn ban notices online. These organizations may have a hotline you can call as well.
Your local newspaper may publish notices about planned and current burn bans as well. If you aren’t able to find anything conclusive about a burn ban in your specific area, call your local fire department for confirmation.
They’ll likely be aware as burn bans are common during dry spells and fire departments have to be extra vigilant during these periods.
What firewood sparks the least?
If you are not under a burn ban but are concerned about an accidental fire starting due to sparks from your fire pit, seasoned oak, beech, and ash are great options that are easy to find, burn hot and long, and have minimal sparking, if any.
For more on selecting the right firewood, check out my article Best Burning Firewood For Your Fire Pit.
Can you use a propane fire pit when there is a fire ban?
It’s not uncommon for municipalities in the U.S. to allow the use of propane fire pits during a burn ban. Check with your local fire safety authorities to get the specifics on what’s permitted during the ban.