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Fire Pit Safety – What precautions should you take?

Fire Pit Safety
Table of contents

    Now more than ever, backyards have become an extension of our living space, with fire pits as the most sought-after accessory to help create the perfect outdoor living environment. However, with this rise in popularity comes an increase in fire-related accidents and injuries. Fortunately, many of these can be prevented with awareness of the hazards posed and knowledge of the steps that can be taken to mitigate the risks. The following fire pit safety guidelines aim to provide you with just that.


    The guidelines fall into two categories, fire prevention (the accidental kind!) and the prevention of personal injuries. While national code and local ordinances and standards address fire prevention, it is, however, left to common sense for the rest. As a result of this, many lessons have been learned the hard way. By putting into practice the safety tips and advice below, we hope you will enjoy many, mishap-free, evenings of fire pit magic!

    Fire Pit Regulations

    Local authorities, as well as homeowners associations, may have regulations in place regarding the type of fire pit allowed, its size, location, hours of use, etc. As local ordinances and standards vary greatly throughout the country it is important to check with your own local authorities before going ahead with a fire pit. You will probably find that in high fire hazard zones, some urban areas, or where air quality is an issue, regulations are much tighter. In some cases, wood-burning fire pits may even be prohibited altogether. Fortunately, gas-fuelled fire pits burn cleaner and present less of a fire risk, and are often allowed in areas where wood-burning ones are not.


    To give you a rough idea of what you may find, we have put together a list of the most common regulations from across the country.

    Where to locate your fire pit

    • Recreational fires should be located a minimum of 25 feet from buildings and other combustible structures or materials such as sheds, fences, decking, shrubs, trees, etc. This may reduce to 15 feet for approved portable outdoor fire pits, depending on local code. There may also be a minimum vertical clearance requirement of up to 21 feet for overhead branches. 
    • Should not be located within 10 feet of property lines. This distance varies, depending on the local code.
    • Do not locate under overhead power lines or over underground utilities.
    • Portable fire pits should be placed somewhere level and stable.
    Fire Pit Location

    Fire pit construction

    • Fire pits should have enclosed sides (min. 6-12 inches high) made from non-combustible materials such as brick, stone, or heavy gauge metal.
    Fire Pit Construction with Steel Liner
    • In-ground fire pits should be lined using noncombustible material such as bricks and mortar or a heavy gauge steel ring. The base should be gravel or sand to a depth of 10 inches.
    Fire Pit Construction
    • Unless located on a rock outcrop, a 10-inch base of material such as gravel or sand, should be placed under the fire pit preventing the fire from direct contact with the earth.
    • The fire pit should be encircled by a border of sand, gravel, paving, or other such noncombustible material. Up to 12 feet, depending on local code.
    • The recommended maximum dimensions of the fuel area (interior fire pit dimensions) are three feet in diameter (roughly 7sq. ft.) and two feet high. Fire pits with a fuel area larger than this may no longer be considered “recreational”.
    Fire Pit Construction Sizes

    Fire pit operation

    • Combustible materials, vegetation, or debris such as leaves, pine needles, brush, mulch, or anything that could cause a fire to spread, must be removed from within a specified distance of the fire pit perimeter. 15 to 25 feet depending on your fire pit or local code.
    • The fire must be attended at all times by a responsible adult until it has been fully extinguished.
    • Adequate fire suppression equipment shall be immediately available to control or extinguish the fire. Examples of these are operable garden hoses, sand, and shovels, water buckets or barrels, or a portable fire extinguisher with a minimum of a 4-A rating.
    • An approved mesh screen or spark arrestor to control and contain embers and sparks must always be used.
    • The fire must be kept to a controllable size.
    • The use of liquid accelerants to light a fire is forbidden.
    • Use only clean, dry, seasoned firewood as fuel.

    It is forbidden to burn the following:

    Wet or unseasoned wood. Treated or painted wood. Wood products containing resin or glue. Garbage, including wastes from food preparation or consumption. Carcasses of dead animals. Combustible waste material. Yard waste, leaves, or brush. Construction materials. Paper and cardboard, other than what is necessary to light a fire. Substances that release toxic emissions, dense smoke, or obnoxious odors when burned. Materials containing paint, plastic, rubber, grease, asphalt, or items made from petroleum.

    Fires not permitted

    Burning is forbidden under the following circumstances:

    • On “Air Quality Alert” days.
    • During a “Total Fire Ban” period.

    • During prohibited hours.
    • When wind speeds exceed the maximum specified by your local fire code.
    • If the fire pit or its operation does not comply with regulations.
    • If it creates a nuisance or reasonably objectionable situation for nearby residents.
    • Please note that if the fire department receives a complaint, they will respond and can, extinguish the fire for any violation of the regulations or if the fire is creating a hazard or nuisance, such as smoke drifting into a neighbor’s house, or embers drifting to their property.

    Fire Pit Safety Advice

    • Take into account the prevailing wind direction and locate your fire pit in a place that reduces the impact of smoke on your home and that of your neighbors.
    • Locate your fire pit away from high-traffic areas and walkways.
    • Space chairs or benches in such a way that guests do not have to squeeze past the fire pit to reach these.
    • Portable fire pits are available in a variety of styles and materials. Ensure that it is well built and provides a safe, stable base for a fire. If your fire pit is made from materials, such as clay or metal, be aware that they can get very hot during operation and retain heat long after the flames have gone out. So, take care!
    • With in-ground fire pits, even when not in use, there is the possibility of someone accidentally falling in! To reduce this risk, when unlit, use a lid. When in use, be extra vigilant!
    • Use a poker, log grabber, or shovel when rearranging burning logs.
    • Bigger is not always better! This is a common mistake people make when size is not restricted by regulations. A fire pit should be large enough for your guests to gather around but still be able to maintain a conversation and feel the warmth from the flames. If a structure is too big, it becomes difficult to rearrange or add logs without compromising your safety! Also, finding a safety screen to fit, becomes an issue and most importantly, roasting marshmallows becomes a lot harder, if not impossible, especially for children.
    • Loose-fitting clothes, especially sleeves, are a hazard when tending the fire. Keep them, as well as your hair out of the way of the flames!
    • Do not put more wood into the fire than you are likely to burn. Letting it burn down completely makes it easier to fully extinguish. Be aware that embers can remain a fire hazard for days if not thoroughly dealt with, so double-check before leaving the fire pit that there is no residual heat. Do not bury or cover the embers with dirt as they may continue to smolder and eventually reignite under certain conditions. Please note that using water to douse the flames may damage fire pits if they are made from materials such as metal or clay. Always replace the screen, even when you think the fire is completely out, just to be on the safe side. Lastly, when removing the ashes use a metal bucket or container and dispose of it safely!!
    • Do not use porous rocks, river rocks, or wet rocks in your fire pit. If exposed to intense heat, pressure can build up within the rock due to the expanding water molecules, causing the rock to explode.
    • Be aware that alcohol consumption and fire pits accidents go hand in hand. Adults that have overindulged may require as much supervision as the kids.

    Gas Fire Pits

    Regulations

    Any building, gas, or electrical work must be carried out in accordance with their respective local codes. With regard to manufactured fire pits and equipment, regulations may provide minimum clearance distances from combustible structures or materials, etc., some local authorities however, will require that you install and operate the fire pit in accordance with the manufacturer’s assembly, safety, and operating instructions. This document must be kept available to prove that your fire pit or equipment complies with the requirements therein.

    Advantages

    Gas fire pits have safety advantages over their wood-burning counterparts.

    • They can be turned on and off by simply flicking a switch or pushing a button, so no need to get anywhere near the flames. The exception to this is with the match-lit system whereby you light the burner manually.
    • Many models allow you to control flame height.
    • The fact that there are no sparks or embers significantly reduces the risk of accidental spreading of fire.
    • When you head off to bed at the end of the evening, you can do so, safe in the knowledge that it is 100% extinguished.

    Safety

    • All fire pits must have an emergency shut-off valve on the exterior of the fireplace or within a distance of 6 feet. The emergency gas shutoff should not be used to adjust the flame height.
    • For electronic ignition models, there must be an electrical shut-off switch or breaker on the exterior of the fireplace. When not in use, ensure the power is switched off to avoid accidental start-up.
    • Adequate fire suppression equipment shall be immediately available to control or extinguish the fire. Examples of these are operable garden hoses, sand, and shovels, water buckets or barrels, or a portable fire extinguisher with a minimum of a 4-A rating.
    • The fire pit must be attended to at all times by a responsible adult until it has been switched off.
    • Remove all combustible materials such as leaves, and paper before using.
    • Children and adults should be alerted high surface temperatures of the appliance.
    • Clothing or other flammable materials should not be placed on or near the appliance.
    • Follow the manufacturers’ assembly, safety, and operating instructions!

    Child Safety Advice

    Keeping your children safe is probably your primary concern when considering a fire pit for the backyard. To ensure this, establish and enforce a set of fire pit safety rules. Before lighting your fire make sure your guests, your children, and their friends know the rules.

    Suggested rules and safety advice:

    • Establish a 3-foot “ kid-free zone” around the fire pit.
    • Children should not be allowed to run, horse around, play football, ride bicycles, and such around the fire pit. Set up a play area away from the fire pit where they can have fun.
    • When the kids do join you at the fire pit make sure there is plenty of seating for them, do not allow them to wander around. They should be encouraged to enjoy the benefits of the fire pit in a relaxed and calm manner.
    • Never leave children unsupervised. There should be a responsible adult present at all times keeping a close eye on them.
    • Closely supervise children when toasting marshmallows. Younger ones are best sat on laps or secured between knees. Remember that marshmallows can cause burns if they get too hot and flaming marshmallows can be a fire hazard.
    • Do not leave matches or lighters in a place where children may get hold of them.
    • Do not allow children to play with the fire or logs.
    • If you are still worried about the children being able to get too close to the fire, install a child safety fence or barrier around the fire pit. It need not interfere with your enjoyment of the fire pit as you only need to locate it far enough away and just high enough to prevent children from direct contact.

    One last piece of advice, if you have any doubts regarding fire pit regulations in your area, contact your local fire department for information.