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Backyard Fire Pit Safety 101: A Primer

We love fire pits, that’s why we are here.  As part of that we, as fire pit users, understand that the key to fire pit safety is a healthy respect for fire and what it’s capable of doing, good and bad.

With the use of fire pits growing at a crazy rate over the last few years, there has been a corresponding rise in fire pit related injuries. 

People are getting hurt in a variety of ways and the results of these accidents are often pretty severe (no surprise there), if not fatal.

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These accidents span from simple falls and making contact with hot surfaces, use of fire accelerants (lighter fluid, gasoline, etc.), burns from loose clothing igniting, etc. 

Many of these accidents are just that, an accident. However, many are due to just plain bad judgment, carelessness, alcohol impairment or any combination of the three.

Fire is unforgiving in most situations, whether we are doing the right thing or not.  It doesn’t care if we took every precaution.

Before we get into the meat and potatoes of the article I want to talk about what I believe is the most important element of fire pit safety, which is supervision.

People are going to do dumb things around fire, both on purpose and inadvertently.  That’s been going on since the beginning of time and most likely won’t change anytime soon.  People often say “you can’t fix stupid,” but you can watch out for it.  

Anyway, you can take care of your own and that begins with having someone “taking charge” of the fire pit and taking steps to keep everyone safe.  

Whether it’s the man, or woman, of the house, someone needs to take ownership of the fire pit from pre-lighting to the time the fire is out and beyond.  That responsibility needs to be their sole focus and one they’ll need to pass on formally if they have to leave, are unable to continue, etc.

It’s often when nobody is paying attention that bad things happen around fire pits.  Having someone in charge of the fire pit the entire time should cut down accident risk significantly.

It’s not a secret that some people like to imbibe in an adult beverage around fire pits.  Please moderate your own alcohol consumption if you are the responsible individual maintaining the fire pit.  You will need to be on your toes if something goes wrong.  

Also, encourage your guests to do the same.  A lot of people fall into fire pits every year and I’d be surprised if alcohol didn’t play a factor much of the time.  

One more thing, its everyone’s job to recognize and call out potential fire pit safety hazards or unsafe behavior.  It’s often when people don’t speak up that bad things happen. If you have to hurt someone’s feelings in the name of safety, so be it.

Managing Fire Pit Safety

Like any activity that has an element of risk, it’s smart to take a second to think about what the risks of that activity are and what you can do about them.  I think we all do this naturally in some form or another in our heads.  

In “another life” I used to do what we called operational risk management, or ORM, as a regular part of my work.  This was an exercise I’d do with my teams where everyone participated and there was no such thing as a stupid answer. 

This drill involved brainstorming the potential safety risks of a particular work-related activity, recording them, and ID’ing the risks that were greatest or most likely to be a factor.  Once we had a list of likely risks, we brainstormed again, this time to find ways to minimize or eliminate risk wherever we could.

Do you have to go through all of this trouble?  No, you don’t, but make sure to take the time to think about it and make a list of actions you need to take and items you need to collect to make sure you provide a safe fire pit experience for your family and guests.

Fire Pit Safety Considerations

What kind of risks come to mind when you think about using a fire pit?  

The risk of burns will most likely be at the top of the list, but the question is really about how someone got burned and what you can do to keep it from happening.  

The following list of fire pit injury risk considerations and their narratives is certainly not an all-inclusive as there are a lot of ways to injure yourself around a fire pit.  

The point here is to get you thinking and raise awareness of common situations that result in injuries and potential precautions that can be taken when planning an event involving a fire pit.

Falls into Fire Pits

A quick study of fire pit accidents shows that people falling into fire pits are among the top ways people are burned. 

The details of these falls are unclear from the publicly available reporting, so we’ll have to fall back on our own experience and the experience of others to prevent them from happening in our backyards.

Incidents involving people falling into fire pits are likely attributed to a variety of factors to include inattention or carelessness, fatigue, impairment from excessive alcohol consumption, tripping or slip hazards, or a combination of any of these.  

Precautions:  

  • This is where someone being in charge of the fire pit becomes important.  Whoever is in charge of the fire pit needs to be on the lookout for potential dangers in the immediate area around the fire.  
  • Keeping an eye on everyone present as well, looking out for impairments of any kind that could cause a dangerous situation, is critical to preventing falls and keeping everyone safe around the fire pit.  This is everyone’s job really, but having one person act as the primary places the responsibility somewhere.

Unsupervised Children and Falls Around Fire Pits

Fire pit accidents involving children typically involve burns received when they come into contact with flame or embers after falling in when not being properly supervised. 

A 2018 article from NBC, citing information from the U.S Consumer Product Safety Commission, states that of the 5,300 fire pit related injuries treated at U.S. hospitals in 2017, one-quarter of these cases were children under 5 years old. 

The article goes on to state that a number of these fire pit accidents involving unsupervised children happened the next day, with burns received from embers that had not yet cooled completely.

Suggested Precautions:  

  •  Keeping an eye on everyone around the fire pit, children, in particular, is critical to a safe gathering.  Supervision is key.
  •  Also, with children frequently getting hurt around fire pits after the party is over, the need to make sure the fire pit is out and all embers extinguished, and access restricted to the area while everything cools is very important in keeping the most vulnerable among us safe.

Fire Pit Tripping Hazards

You would think it would be common sense to keep items that people could trip over away from the immediate space around the fire pit, but I know it happens.  

Purses, chairs, coolers, beverage containers, firewood, tools to tend to the fire, etc. are commonly found around fire pits.  Each one of these, in the wrong spot, is a potential tripping hazard.  

Suggested Precautions:  

  • It’s critical to maintain a space around the fire pit where people can walk unobstructed, thus reducing the risk of trips and falls.  Ideally, the space between the ring of seats and the fire pit should be free of anything that could cause trips and falls.  
  • To keep clutter around the fire pit to a minimum, identify a central location away from the area where family and guests can stage their personal belongings.

Contact with Fire Pit Flame When Adding Accelerants

Using or adding accelerants (i.e. lighter fluid) to a fire is one of the most common causes of burn injuries when using a fire pit. 

Rapid, often violent, ignition along with the potential for setting yourself on fire, and an out-of-control fire in the fire pit and the surrounding area are reasons enough not to use accelerants.  

Take the time to prepare and light your fire pit properly (and safely!) using tinder, kindling, and logs.  It may not always go exactly as you hoped, but stick with it and you’ll get better with practice.  

See my article, How to Start a Fire Pit, for more on how to properly light a fire in your fire pit.

Suggested Precautions:  

  • Don’t use accelerants like lighter fluid, gasoline, etc.) ever when lighting your fire pit.  The end.
  • Learn how to light a fire pit the correct way.

Loose Clothing/Hair When Around a Fire Pit

Another common cause of fire pit related burns comes from the accidental ignition of loose clothing and long hair that is not tied up.  

Loose sleeves, shirttails, or other clothing parts are often dangled over a flame or hot surfaces inviting unintended ignition. 

Take time to consider what you are going to wear if you will be working directly with the fire pit. It doesn’t take long for the fabric to light and some kinds, like linen, cotton, and silk do so very quickly.

Like some fabrics, hair ignites and burns quickly if steps aren’t taken to keep it from making contact with flames.  Add the presence of hair spray on hair and things go south much quicker.  Take it easy with the hairspray and keep long hair tied back.  

Suggested Precautions:  

  • When tending to a fire pit or standing close by, it’s important to ensure clothing does not come into contact with flames or hot surfaces; pay particular attention to sleeves and shirttails when close to the fire.
  • Keep long hair back to minimize the risk of contact with flame, and skip the hairspray if you are going to be around a fire pit.

Fire Pit Tip-Overs

Fire pit tip-overs are particularly hazardous due to the risk of burn injury to those around the fire pit but also from the risk from a fire starting and spreading in the immediate area.

These tip-overs are risk specific to portable fire pits which are typically light-weight, and in some cases have little contact with whatever surface its sitting on.  

Some portable fire pits are designed to sit on a flat surface a surface with complete 360-degree contact, others have 3-4 legs that touch the supporting surface.  

Fire pits with 3 legs tend to be designed with a lower center of gravity, providing additional stability which assists in minimizing tip-overs.  

Fire pits with four legs generally maintain a higher center of gravity, but the additional fourth leg provides some tip-over risk minimization. I’m not talking about the box-shaped table-type fire pits with very short supports in this example, more the simple and less-expensive lightweight all-metal models with a legged base and bowl.

The most likely reason for a fire pit to tip over is from someone inadvertently bumping into it, knocking it over.  As with falls, this could be caused by many of the same factors, including inattention, fatigue, and alcohol impairment, among others.

Another potential contributor to fire pit tip-overs is the placement of a portable fire pit on an unstable or uneven surface.  A poor choice of location could result in a fire pit being much easier to tip over from a simple bump.  

Suggested Safety Precautions:  

  • Fire pits should be placed on flat surfaces that are structurally stable, fire-resistant and away from potential fuel sources.  Concrete, brick, and asphalt surfaces are best, however, fire pits can be placed on stable and level surfaces such as grass and decks, but a fire pit heat shield of some sort should be used.  

If you do use a fire pit heat shield that raises the fire pit above the supporting surface, like a platform, make sure there is plenty of space between the fire pit’s contacts with the platform and the edges of the platform.  

You could be creating a whole new tip-over situation if one of the legs of a fire pit gets too close to the edge of the platform and loses contact.

For more information on using fire pits on grass with raised heat shields, see my article Fire Pits on Decks: How to Keep Your Fire Pit From Feeling the Burn, on the subject.  The same information would apply to decks and the use of heat shields.

Contact with Fire Pit Sparks or Embers

Another potential burn risk is related to sparks, embers, or other debris being ejected from the fire for one reason or another.

Shifting logs are a common cause for hot debris leaving a fire pit.  When logs that are supporting other logs burn down, they will often collapse causing a shift in the other logs and burning embers within a fire pit.  This shift could cause burning debris to be discharged from the fire pit.  

This discharge of hot debris can also take place when adding logs to fire as additional weight is added to logs that have already been weakened by fire.

Another risk comes from sparks potentially produced by the fire.  Certain types of wood are prone to sparking – locust and chestnut on the hardwood side and cedar, spruce, pine and fir on the softwood side. 

If sitting too close to the fire pit, these sparks can land on you and your guests and cause minor burns and damage to clothing and other materials in the area.

Suggested Precautions: 

  •  Maintain a buffer zone for seating around your fire pit of about 5-7 feet to minimize the risk of coming in contact with sparks and embers discharged for any reason.
  • Take your time and use caution when adding new logs to your fire pit.  Ensure logs are seated well and stable to minimize shifting.
  • Select firewood for fire pit use that isn’t prone to sparking.

Factors that Increase Fire Pit Safety Risk

When you sit back and think for a moment, there are a lot of drivers that make the things I mentioned above happen. 

These causes listed below are common in many accidents at home and on the job. They’re not exclusive to backyard activities.  

Sometimes it’s a combination of these, sometimes it’s just one, but all can play a factor in increasing the odds that someone will get hurt. 

I covered the first driver, related to supervision, at the beginning of the article and I’m putting it at the top of the list here because I think it’s the most important.

Lack of Supervision Near the Fire Pit

I don’t mean to sound preachy, but I think with proper supervision, all of the potential impacts of the remaining drivers that follow can be minimized or eliminated. 

As I mentioned earlier, keeping alert and watching out for dangerous situations around the fire pit is everyone’s duty, but somebody needs to have overall responsibility for supervision. 

It could be the host or another family member, friend, etc., but somebody needs to take on that role and stay at it until the fire is doused and everyone has left the area.

Excessive Use of Alcohol Near a Fire Pit

Having a drink around the fire pit is part of the experience for many, myself and my wife included.  It’s those who drink excessively around the fire pit that increases the danger for themselves and others.  

I’m not saying be a teetotaler, but encourage others to moderate their alcohol intake and keep an eye out for those look like they may have had too much. 

Accidents around fire pits often happen to people who are completely sober, throwing excessive alcohol into the mix increases the odds significantly.  

If you are hosting an event that involves guests gathering around a fire pit, try to include non-alcoholic choices for those who don’t drink and for when people decide they’ve had enough beer, wine, or liquor.  Adding food to the occasion can help as well.

Fatigue When Working with and Supervising a Fire Pit

This one is pretty easy to avoid, but life often gets in the way and good sleep is not always possible.  Fatigue, especially combined with excessive alcohol consumption, can be very dangerous around a fire pit.  

Take care to get enough sleep before your backyard activities, particularly if you are the one in charge of the fire pit.  If need rest isn’t in the cards, pass the job onto someone who is well-rested and make sure they understand what’s involved.

Apathy When Near a Fire Pit

General apathy in any environment where there is some risk can be dangerous to the individual and those around them.  Be observant of those who aren’t showing concern for themselves and others around the fire pit.  

As it’s everyone’s role to watch out for each other, apathy takes a pair of eyes out of the game, increasing the risk to everyone.  If someone seems distant or not involved in the festivities, encourage them to engage and take part.

Recommended Fire Pit Safety Equipment

Having the right gear around the fire pit is critical to minimizing risk at a gathering and having it on hand will make your job a lot easier if you are in charge of the fire pit.  Some of the items mentioned aren’t safety-related items specifically, but having them will create a safer environment.

Fire Pit Safety “Emergency” Gear

Bucket of Water, Fire Extinguisher or Hose:  Something to extinguish a fire in case of an emergency situation is a definite must-have.  If your fire gets out of control, someone’s clothes catch, whatever, you’ll want to have something within arm’s to put it out quickly.

Fire Blanket:  If someone’s clothes were to catch fire while near your fire pit, having a fire blanket on hand can be an effective tool for putting it out and saving them from severe injury.  These blankets can also be used to smother small fires as well.

First Aid Kit: If a guest were to get injured while near your fire pit, having a first aid kit nearby to tend to a burn or other injury could prove useful. 

Firewood Handling Gear

Fire Pit Tongs:  Firm control of your firewood when adding or repositioning is critical in keeping everything that’s supposed to be in the fire pit (i.e. the hot stuff) in the fire pit.  

A solid pair of firewood tongs, or “grabbers” as they are sometimes called, will help you with this.  Keep them nearby and use them.  

Adding a good poker to the mix can complement the firewood tongs, especially when repositioning firewood in the fire pit.

Fire Pit Safety Protective Gear 

Heat-Resistant Glove(s):  A good pair of fire-resistant gloves can come in handy when using tongs when tending to a fire.  They’re also very useful if you must touch the hot metal parts of your fire pit for whatever reason.

I recommend keeping these items as a set, specifically for fire pit use.  You don’t want to be running around looking for these items when getting ready for your fire pit gathering, and particularly when an emergency occurs.  I keep all of this in a standard Rubbermaid plastic bin and that’s where it stays until I need it.

Check your local hardware store or Amazon for any of these items.

Conclusion: Fire Pit Safety

A lot of what was covered is common sense but in the hustle and bustle of everyday life we take our eye off the ball and bad things happen. 

Taking a few moments to think about and cover down on what needs to be done to keep everyone safe is critical.

Hopefully, this article will stir some thought and help you prepare for a safe and fun time around your fire pit all year round.

For more on the topic of fire pit safety, check out my article Fire Pit Placement: Picking the Right Spot for Your Fire Pit.

Related Questions

What are some additional resources I can consult to learn about fire pit safety?  The U.S. Fire Administration, part of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, provides a variety of outstanding online public outreach and learning materials on their site here.  

Additionally, the non-profit National Fire Protection Association, in an effort to reduce fire-related incidents, tracks fire-related data, provides research and publishes fire awareness materials to fire professionals and the public.

What type of fire extinguisher would be best for wood-burning backyard fire pit emergencies?  A standard home-use “ABC” fire extinguisher would be the best option to keep on hand for putting out a fire pit related fire, or any fire in the home for that matter. 

I’m partial to the Amerex brand as they are well made and held in high regard in the firefighting community.

Image of a backyard fire pit