Can You Light a Fire in Your Backyard and Not Get Burned?

Imagine a fall evening. Perhaps you cooked dinner on the grill. You’re winding down and enjoying the company and don’t want the night to end. That gets you wondering. Can you light a fire in your backyard legally?

The short answer is that it depends.

There are several things to consider from a legal perspective as well as safety issues. The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) estimates that fires caused $23 billion in damage in 2017, causing over 14,000 injuries and 3,400 deaths. Sobering, to say the least.

Let’s look at the question of fires in detail to make sure you stay on the right side of the law if you want to have on in your backyard.

Legalities

The first place to start is with the laws and regulations that may forbid this activity. As far as the federal government is concerned, you can light a fire—as long as you do it responsibly. After all, as the statistics show, you’re dealing with something that is potentially dangerous.

The state government’s position is another story.

Several areas like Arizona and Colorado don’t allow fires, whether it’s to burn trash or for recreational purposes. Most of these regulations hinge on air quality issues. For example, a temperature inversion can trap fumes in lower areas, creating a serious health risk.

Other things can affect the air you breathe including:

  • Wildfire in other areas
  • Pollution
  • No Burn Days

Then, there’s the question of local ordinances…

Population density is often a mitigating factor when questioning can you light a fire in your backyard. There may just be too many people in a small area that create a significant risk of property loss or lives if it gets out of hand.

Even if you live in a suburb or rural area, you may find that building a fire is a no-no. You also have to consider the rules of your homeowners’ association, which may forbid it. Some areas may require a permit—and a fee.

Don’t Burn It

The other aspect of this question is what you can burn. Your area may allow you to have a recreational fire but not permit trash-burning or getting rid of yard waste. Therefore, it pays to ask for permission than beg for forgiveness.

Let’s say that your city has no problems with backyard fires. There are several things you shouldn’t burn, ever. They include:

  • Household trash, especially plastics, styrofoam, or cardboard
  • Green and unseasoned wood 
  • Construction scraps
  • Poison ivy

All of these materials can release toxic fumes. Some will also create a lot of smoke, which can harm individuals with respiratory conditions like COPD or asthma.

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Wood Sources

There is also another side to this story that you need to know, concerning where you get the fuel for your backyard fire. You may have noticed signs at the county or state parks stating that you cannot bring in wood from another area or within a certain radius. The reason often is…

Pests like the emerald ash borer.

These destructive insects entered the United States in 2002. The potential for losing significant numbers of ash trees is real, hence, the restrictions on what you can bring into your state or county. Some areas will only allow you to use wood that has been heat-treated to kill these pests. 

The laws vary widely, so it’s best to check before you source wood from any place. It’s the right thing to do for the environment.

Tips for Safe Fires in Your Yard

If you decide to start a fire, it’s imperative to take some precautions before you strike that first match. Let’s begin with the location of your fire.

You should plan on using a spot that is at least 10 or more feet from any buildings, including your house and other flammable items. Some areas have specific requirements about where you can start a fire that you should verify. Using a fire pit is the safest option to contain it instead of on the bare ground.

Setting the Stage

You should only use permitted, dry, seasoned wood. You’ll also need kindling, making an ax a handy tool to have around to get things ready. A shovel and a garden hose are essential as a precaution and to put out the fire when you’re ready to go back inside the house. Tools to manage the blaze are also important to keep it safe. You might also consider having a fire extinguisher nearby.

We strongly urge you not to use lighter fluid to get things started. Instead, you can get firestarters online or at your local camp store to make it easier and safer. With enough kindling, you shouldn’t have any problems making it happen.

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Wind and Weather

These are crucial criteria for a backyard fire to contain it. Check the wind speed and direction before you start it. Ideally, it’s between 4 and 15 mph and not blowing in the direction of your neighbor’s house. This range ensures that there is enough of a breeze to disperse the smoke without creating a fire risk.

Also, you should opt for a day when the relative humidity is between 30 and 60 percent. The reason for this precaution is that anything lower will dry the area around your fire and increase the chances of it escaping and getting out of control. If the humidity is too high, nothing will burn but will smolder, instead.

 It defeats the purpose of having a fire in the first place.

We’d also suggest looking at the forecast on your smartphone. Many areas will issue fire bans if dangerous wildfire conditions exist. If there is an advisory or warning, postpone it for another day when conditions are more favorable.

Some areas may require that you give prior notification of a fire, especially if it could impact visibility on nearby roads. If you had to get a permit, you may have only a small window.  And a heads-up to your neighbor’s is always a good idea too to keep the peace.

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Final Thoughts

We understand the allure of gathering around a campfire to stay warm and share good times with family and friends. However, the question of can you light a fire in your backyard is best answered before you start it. You’ll save yourself a lot of hassle if you ask first. Remember that it’s supposed to be something enjoyable and not a reason for a fine.