Nothing says Texas winter like the crackle of fire pits. A well-placed fire pit can turn your backyard space into a prime social destination; it can also serve as a great excuse to keep your pantry stocked with marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers all year round. But any kind of open flame comes with safety concerns, and knowing how to maintain your fire pit to avoid accident or injury is an important responsibility for any homeowner. That’s why we spoke with Randle Blesing, the Assistant Fire Chief and Fire Marshall for the Cedar Park Fire Department, on the best fire pit safety tips and tricks for your outdoor space.
Recreational Fire vs. Open Burn
Before we jump into the dos and don’ts of fire pit safety, it’s important to understand the difference between a recreational fire pit and an open burn. The City of Austin and its surrounding communities have clear differences in how they treat recreational fire and the open burn of wood, rubbish, or other solid materials. Here is the textbook definition of recreational fires courtesy of the Austin Fire Code:
“An outdoor fire burning materials other than rubbish where the fuel being burned is not contained in an incinerator, outdoor fireplace, barbeque grill or barbeque pit and has a total fuel area of 3 feet (914 mm) or less in diameter and 2 feet (610 mm) or less in height for pleasure, religious, ceremonial, cooking, warmth or similar purposes.”
Let’s say you’ve finished trimming the trees around your house for the winter and want to use them as part of a backyard bonfire. Texas regulations would identify this as an open burn and first require you to get an open burn permit. On the other hand, if you recently purchased a $200 consumer fire pit at the local hardware store, this would fall under the definition of a recreational fire. You’re free to enjoy the warmth - and marshmallows! - of your fire pit as long as you adhere to the following safety standards.
- Keep Your Yard Clear of Obstacles. When setting up your fire pit, your first priority should be to keep your open flame away from combustibles or anything that can easily catch fire. “If you have a fire pit in the backyard and you don't protect it,” Blesing explained, “your grass could catch on fire. You need to keep it at least 25 feet away from normal combustibles.” The same goes for outdoor structures such as pergolas, decks, and covered spaces. Make sure that you have plenty of space between your fire and your outdoor structures before lighting your first fire.
For homeowners who have gone the store-bought route, consumer fire pits actually offer some degree of protection against accidental fires. “Some [fire pits] are elevated off the ground, which makes that pretty much okay as far as putting it into your backyard,” Blesing suggested. If you choose to dig your own fire pit in the backyard, however, it’s important that you layer the gravel, stone, and mortar correctly to prevent flame and heat from escaping. You can visit This Old House for more information on the correct way to dig out and insulate your outdoor fire pit.
- Be Specific With What You Burn. Once your fire pit is up and running, it may be tempting to add small burnable items such as newspaper or pieces of construction wood to the fire. This is something to avoid at all costs. “Make sure you're not burning construction wood, because construction materials have chemicals in them,” Blesing explained. “You just want raw wood where you're not having a chemical bi-product being exposed.” These chemicals, when added to the smoke, can have a variety of short-term and long-term effects on your health.
But even normal wood comes with a variety of types and concerns. For the best fire pit experience, experts recommend seeking out seasoned wood, or wood that has been dried for a long period of time - sometimes even years! - before being made available to the public. Seasoned wood is often easier to light, maintains its burn for a longer period of time, and will leave less residue on the fire pit itself. For a complete list of recommended firewood types, you can visit HGTV’s Outdoor Design blog.
- Keep Your Fire Covered. One of the challenges of maintaining an outdoor fire pit is accounting for the wind. “If you ever burn paper, you'll notice the wind will take it away because it's very light and travels very rapidly,” Blesing said. This can be a major challenge for people who own a fire pit in a residential area. Even the safest materials can still cause sparks to fly, and a strong gust of wind is all it takes for your fire to escape the carefully constructed area you prepared for it.
Thankfully, many consumer fire pits are designed with this problem in mind. “Most fire pits have a spark arrestor lid that you can put on it,” Blesing said. “If the wind is blowing, you're not going to be blowing sparks into the neighbor's yard.” If you built your own fire pit, you can also purchase a spark screens of varying sizes to match the size of your construction. These can range anywhere in price from $40 to $200 depending on size and quality.
- Be Careful when Extinguishing Your Fire. If you spent any time in the Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts growing up, odds are you remember how to properly extinguish an outdoor campfire. According to Blesing, the same rules apply to extinguishing your fire pit. “The best way is to douse it with water,” he suggested. “Make sure you stir the ashes around, because ashes can cover up coals sometimes and insulate them.”
Just as you wouldn’t let a campfire burn itself out, neither should you just walk away from your fire pit. Taking the extra time to douse your pit with water - and to dig around for embers that may still be quietly simmering - can make all the difference in the world. “Once you put water in there, stir it around and make sure everything, all the coals that are in there, are uncovered,” Blesing continued. “Get water in contact with them to absorb all the heat away from them.
- Practice Situational Awareness. In the end, the best way to avoid accidents with an outdoor fire pit is to practice smart situational awareness. Keeping an attentive eye on your fire pit and the people around it can prevent damage to your home or even injuries to a love one. “Your fire pit should never be left alone, especially if you have small children or even elderly people out there, because you do have that open flame,” Blesing suggested. “Small children can fall into it, or adults can trip and hurt themselves considerably.”
Of course, situational awareness is about more than accident prevention. It’s also important to have the right supplies on hand in case something does go wrong with your fire pit. “Have some method to extinguish [a fire pit] immediately, possibly a fire extinguisher or a garden hose,” Blesing concluded. “If you have a way to extinguish something immediately, then it takes that danger away so it doesn't grow into something that's uncontrollable.” As a last resort, make sure you also have a first-aid kit handy to quickly address any accidental burns.
So there you have it - five ways to ensure that your winter months are accident and injury-free. Follow these steps with your outdoor fire pit, and you should be able to enjoy a safe and relaxing holiday season in front of a crackling fire, just like all those Christmas songs suggest.