With the allure and peacefulness of a crackling fire in your own backyard fire pit, safety is not often the foremost thought on our minds. We sit around the fire enjoying family and friends, telling tall tales and socializing about good times. But accidents do happen. Sometimes we can get away with simply reacting to a stray ember or a flame-up when cooking over the pit. However, fire can spread quickly and without proper precautions, you can be burned or your property can be severely damaged. By following basic fire pit safety tips, your family and friends can blissfully delight in their story telling while you take comfort in knowing that you are prepared for the dangers of an open fire.
Basic Elements of Fire Pit Safety
To ensure you have a safe and trouble-free pit fire, there are a few basic guidelines that should always be followed.
- Never place your prefabricated fire pit indoors. This may seem obvious but the danger lies not so much in catching something on fire but from the toxic fumes that build up. Breathing these fumes even over a short period of time can cause severe illness or even death.
- Make sure you have a bucket of sand, a garden hose or bucket of water and a fire extinguisher nearby to douse the flames. Note that all fire extinguishers have an expiration date so be sure to check that the date isn’t too close to expiration.
- Place your fire pit away from low hanging branches. Heat rises and can carry hot embers up into the branches before going out. At least seven feet clearance above the flames is required.
- Clear all brush and shrubbery within ten feet minimum of the fire pit as wood with a lot of sap can suddenly pop from heat expansion causing embers to fly into nearby bushes.
- Keep it away from the house. Ten feet of separation applies here as well: your house is made of combustible construction materials. For permanent fire pit structures such as an outdoor fireplace, 25 feet is a recommended guideline.
- Learn how to operate your fire pit properly by reading the manual that comes with it. Operation may seem simple but more elaborate fire pits, such as those using rotisseries or natural gas, have several operating parts that require at least a basic understanding of operation and maintenance. Also, the manufacturer will make recommendations as to what approved materials can be burned in your pit.
- Never have loose clothing or hair and wear gloves when tending a wood burning fire.
- Utilize the manufacturer tools in your kit such as the spark guard cover and lifter/poker for the screen so that you do not get burned.
- Don’t overload your wood burning fire pit with logs just in case it may create a tipping hazard and so as to avoid logs falling out as they burn and disintegrate.
- Be careful with flammable fluids such as alcohol if you are having a party.
- Never use accelerants such as gasoline to start a wood burning fire.
- Never allow children to be near a fire pit unattended. Children are very curious and may not be aware of the dangers of an open fire.
- Always keep a first aid kit nearby to treat minor burns.
Depending on the type of fire pit you have, there are several options which can be used to improve outdoor fire pit safety.
- Fire bowl pits, those that have a metal bowl supported by legs, can use a domed mesh screen placed on top of the bowl to contain sparks and embers. There are many designs including those that have hinged doors to make fire tending easier. This option provides great fire protection, especially when burning very dry wood.
- If your fire pit uses propane or natural gas, another nice option is to use a burner with a safety pilot valve. A safety pilot valve uses a pilot light, igniter and thermocouple similar to a water heater. The thermocouple ensures that there is a flame present before allowing gas to flow. If the flame blows out, gas will stop flowing.
- If you are in the planning stage of building a permanent, stationary outdoor fire pit design, consider using predesigned architectural plans. Generally, these designs take into account safety aspects such as tall outer walls and wide ledges. Tall walls help to reduce the effects of wind and wide ledges provide a heat buffer between you and the fire. Use fire resistant concrete, brick and stone. Do not use river rock as they are subject to exploding as they tend to trap moisture.
- If you are using a lighter free-standing portable fireplace such as a chimenea, you can place it in a corner or by a fence so it is not blown over by the wind. Or you can weight the chiminea or fire pit down by placing logs inside the pit when not in use. Portable prefabricated fire pits should also be weighted down by placing sand in the bottom of the fire bowl. The sand also serves a dual purpose, in addition it provides some insulation between the floor and the bottom of the fire pit to prevent burning. Placing prefab fire pits on heat resistant surfaces such as gravel, ceramic or concrete is a must to protect the area from flying embers. Using a non flammable, movable, mat or pad that acts as a hearth is also an option.
There are a variety of fuels that can be safely used in a backyard fire pit. The one you choose will depend on how dedicated you are to tending, cleanup and maintenance.
- Low maintenance fuels include propane and natural gas. If you have a custom built fire pit, chances are that it is plumbed for using natural gas that your home already uses. This is the safest route to take because all the connections, valving and burners are engineered to work together. Propane is the next safest but requires refilling the tank. Today’s propane tanks are quite safe when used properly however.
- Ready-made logs made from sawdust or coffee grounds offer a more controlled safer burn than wood and are generally used for ambiance rather than heat. They burn for long periods of time, require little tending and are a nice “green” alternative to wood.
- Wood, especially pine and cedar, provide that wonderful crackling and popping noise but requires careful attention to safety. The occasional wild popping can cause hot embers to be spit out of the fire, possibly burning something nearby. Wood requires a lot of cleanup but it can’t be beat for both ambiance and cost effectiveness.
Codes and Ordinances
Before buying or building a backyard fire pit, you should check your local codes and ordinances for any restrictions and regulations. Even if you are allowed to have a pit fire in your area, there are generally several broad restrictions.
- You should not burn waste materials, scrap wood, pallets, paper, cardboard, rakings, leaves, grass, weeds, litter or sweepings.
- Burning that is offensive because of excessive smoke or odor emissions or if it’s too windy such that the fire becomes a safety hazard is prohibited.
- Hours for outdoor burning may be restricted which is generally from late at night to early morning hours.
Watch This Video and Observe the Safety Guidelines for Fire Pit Use
Be Safe and Satisfied
Backyard fire pit safety is often an afterthought for those that just want to enjoy gathering around the fire. But it is an essential requirement to ensure you can handle a situation if a fire gets out of control. Using the fire pit safety tips outlined above will go a long way with having a safe and satisfying experience only an open fire can provide.