Few experiences can conjure such feelings of romance and contentment as enjoying a blazing campfire on a chilly night. Perhaps you’re wondering if you are allowed to have a fire in your backyard to bring that pleasure home. In this article, we’re here to help you do just that.
Laws Regarding Fires in Your Backyard
From a federal perspective, you can practice backyard burning. It’s an activity that many people enjoy, especially with the popularity rise of fire pits. According to the American Society of Landscape Architects, it is the fourth top homeowner must-have.
We get it. Having a fire pit and a patio is a fantastic way to enjoy your yard whether it’s for entertaining or increasing your property’s market value.
You’re more likely to find regulations covering the legality of the question of if you’re allowed to have a fire in your backyard at the state, county, or local level.
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Factors that Come into Play with Backyard Fires
Several things come into play when deciding whether you want to have fires in your yard. The foremost concern is safety, both for your family and the surrounding community.
A look at the fire statistics makes an excellent case for this conclusion with fires of all kinds causing about $23 billion in damage alone. That says nothing about the injuries and associated deaths.
Another consideration is the by-products emitted from open fires into the air. The composition varies with the material, of course. But even burning something as innocuous as leaves releases greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere.
That worry carries over to wood-burning fireplaces where several states including Colorado and Idaho have state-level regulations about fires.
Naturally, the wildfires in California and other vulnerable states have everyone concerned.
Backyard Fire Regulations Based on Your Location
Authorities often cite population density as a deciding factor about the legality of backyard burning. It’s one thing if you accidentally burn a patch of lawn. It’s another thing entirely if your campfire is encroaching your neighbor’s yard.
And if you’re having a fire in your town, you can be sure someone else is too. That can affect the air quality of the entire city. Urban areas with a lot of buildings create their own environment and can trap pollutants too close to ground level.
Some places will allow you to have a backyard fire if you get a permit. You may also find that other regulations exist about when and where you can set it, the size, the types of materials, and distance from your neighbors.
Other Caveats Affecting if You Can Have a Fire
All that we’ve discussed so far is common sense. The laws exist for a reason. However, you’ll likely find that there are a lot of other conditions surrounding this fire question. Some are obvious, others, not so much.
- Air quality alerts
- Dry conditions
- Wind direction
- Types of fuel
Let’s discuss each one in detail to help you make an informed decision about having a backyard fire.
Air Quality Alerts
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its state agencies measure the level of health concern using the Air Quality Index (AQI). This number ranges from 0-500, with the highest numbers representing the greatest threats.
The AQI considers five factors. They include:
- Sulfur dioxide
- Carbon monoxide
- Nitrogen dioxide
- Ground-level ozone
- Particle pollution
The last one is of particular concern with your backyard burning since it’ll release this particulate matter into the air too. Many areas have regulations that state that you cannot have a fire in your yard if there is an active alert.
Many mobile weather apps include this information and will notify you of warnings issued for your region. It’s no coincidence that wildfires often trigger these alerts.
We’d also recommend checking with your neighbors, especially is someone living next door has respiratory issues. As much as we love the smell of a campfire, we understand that not everyone shares our feelings.
Your weather app may also give your fire watches and warnings. They mean that arid conditions combined with the current weather pose a greater risk of a wildfire or loss of control of one that you may set your backyard.
Lighter materials like leaves and twigs will dry out quicker in these situations. That means that a fire will have plenty of fuel to get started—and spread. Wait until the relative humidity is at least 45 percent to play it on the safe side if you plan to burn wood.
Wind Direction and Speed
The wind direction and speed go hand-in-hand with dry conditions. They will affect where an uncontained fire will spread and how fast it’ll move. The pathway it takes provides information about its potential impact. If there is a lot of fuel to burn, it can quickly become dangerous.
This factor also plays a role in are you allowed to have a fire in your backyard if you live in an urban area or near a public road. Fires with a lot of damp duffs or leaf litter generate a lot of smoke. That can, in turn, affect the visibility on roads, making it a hazard for drivers.
That’s one reason that you’ll see signs alerting to you to areas doing prescribed burning, such as parks and natural areas.
Types of Fuel
There are two facets to this question of what you burn. First, other materials such as household waste, plastics, and petroleum-containing items can release toxic fumes when ignited. Your municipality may allow you to burn leaves but not other things that can affect air quality.
You may see language written in the law that distinguishes recreational fires from garbage burning. We strongly recommend getting specific information about what you can and cannot burn. Make sure that the kids know that they shouldn’t toss their styrofoam cups into the blaze too.
The second part of this caveat involves safety and fire control. Light materials like grass and leaves burn quickly. A yard filled with dead leaves poses a risk if a spark ignites it. It’ll move fast and will be harder for you to manage.
While wood burns slower, it also burns hotter. That can make it difficult for you to get close enough to put out a fire in the nearby woodpile.
Tips for Safe Backyard Burning
If you’ve determined that you can have a fire, there are several precautions you can take to minimize the risk of an uncontrolled burn and injuries to yourself or anyone else gathered around the campfire.
The first thing you must do is check the conditions. Verify that the air quality is acceptable and that the wind isn’t blowing to your house or other outbuildings.
We’d recommend keeping the grass around any structures mowed short to provide a fire break should the flame escape your fire pit or chiminea. It’s also a smart idea to take the same precaution for the area immediately surrounding your campfire.
Before You Start
Prepare your materials before you strike the first match. Gather your kindling and preferably seasoned firewood. Have a poker and a shovel handy to manage the fire. We’d also strongly urge you to have a garden hose nearby in case of an emergency.
Set up your fire using kindling and smaller wood pieces surrounded by larger ones. Refrain from using materials like lighter fluid to fan the flames. Firestarters are effective and safer options for getting it started.
We’d suggest opting for hardwoods like oak instead of pine or similar woods that can send off sparks.
During the Fire
Keep track of children and pets as the fire burning, keeping them at least a few feet away. Add additional wood pieces so that they are resting securely against another one or along the wall of the fire pit to prevent them from falling out of the pit.
While it may seem like overkill, follow the advice of those-in-the-know and avoid wearing synthetic clothing made with materials like polyester or nylon. If you wear contacts, we’d recommend wearing glasses instead too.
The chances are you’re having a fire because the night is chilly. Make sure your children know not to put their feet to close to the flames. The rubber on the bottom of their shoes can melt too and cause painful burns.
After the Fire
Never leave a fire unattended. Humans cause nearly 90 percent of wildfires. Douse the flame with water and turn over the embers with the shovel you brought out of the shed. Rinse and repeat until you don’t see any glowing bits. Then, do it again to be sure.
There’s a reason that many communities have strict regulations about backyard burning. Don’t be that guy.
Final Thoughts About Fires in Your Yard
There’s something satisfying and relaxing about gathering around a fire and gazing into it. Maybe it links us with our ancestors in a profound way. Or perhaps it’s the feeling of bonding with nature.
However, it’s not always possible in some areas or at certain times. Understanding the risks can help you play it safe for everyone involved.
When asking are you allowed to have a fire in your backyard, realize that it’s a responsibility to your family and your neighbors. Err on the side of caution to make sure that you can enjoy the next one.