From Chief of Department May 25, 2021
It is that time of year again that many residents are having campfires in their backyards. So, I just want to remind everyone about the rules regarding this practice so that it can be done safely and legally. In order to regulate the use of fire pits for recreational burning, the fire department uses the Fire Code of New York State as a guide to enforce safe practices. What is the Fire Code?
The fire code establishes regulations at the state level. These regulations relate to structures, processes, premises and safeguards relating to:
- Hazards of fire and explosions arising from the storage, handling or use of structures, materials or devices.
- Conditions hazardous to life, property or public welfare.
- Fire hazards in a structure or on the premises (think fire pits).
- Matters related to construction, repair, alteration or removal of fire suppression and alarm systems.
In general, the purpose of the fire code is: “To establish the minimum requirements consistent with nationally recognized good practice for providing a reasonable level of life-safety and property protection from the hazards of fire, explosion or dangerous conditions.”
As I mentioned above, we use the fire code to regulate the use of fire pits. Section 307 of the Fire Code addresses this issue and it is from there we have derived a list of rules one must abide by in order to use a fire pit. The rules are as follows:
1. Only commercially available fireplaces/pits are to be used. A homemade fire pit constructed of brick may be allowed (see #4 & 5).
2. A screened lid must be in place at all times while burning.
3. Only clean, dry firewood may be burned. Some examples of materials not allowed to be burned in firepits are garbage, paper, plastics, rubber, scrap wood, twigs, leaves, grass or other vegetation.
4. The fireplace/pit must be located no closer than 15 feet from a building or other combustible structure.
5. The fireplace/pit must not have a diameter of more than 3 feet or a height in excess of 2 feet.
6. A fire extinguisher or garden hose must be readily accessible.
7. A responsible adult must constantly supervise the fire. (Unattended fires are not allowed and must be extinguished. Fires should not be left smoldering).
8. Fire must be kept small and within the confines of the fireplace/pit.
9. Burning is not allowed after 11 pm. (This rule is in place for the consideration of neighbors who keep their windows open while sleeping).
10. Fire must be completely extinguished before being left unattended.
Regarding rule # 3 above (requirement for clean dry wood), this is because dry wood burns hotter and gives off less smoke. Some types of wood burn better that other types. Hardwoods such as oak, maple, cherry, apple and ash are the best to use. Other types of wood such as pine and willow that naturally contain more moisture or sap will burn but will also give off much more smoke and not so nice odors. Pressure-treated wood, the kind used for decking and fences, should not be burned as it will give off extra-toxic smoke.
It is important to understand that if you are burning in a firepit, should a neighbor call the fire department to make a complaint because the smoke is bothering them, despite that you might be abiding by all of the rules, the fire department will have no choice but to order that the fire is put out. This is to comply with section 307.2.2 of the code where it states that “burning that will be offensive or objectional due to smoke or odor emissions that make such fires hazardous, shall be prohibited.”
If you have someone in your neighborhood who burns in a firepit (legal or illegal) and are legitimately bothered by the smoke or odor or, if you feel the fire is creating a dangerous situation, you have the right to make a complaint. Do so by calling 9-1-1 and explaining the situation to the dispatcher and that “you wish to make a complaint.” The dispatcher can protect your identity if you fear retribution. The fire department will then come to the scene and investigate the situation.
Other situations that would prohibit the use of a fire pit would be when weather conditions increase the danger of fire spread such as during high winds or extended drought conditions. Many may not realize it but each year between the months of March and May, New York State prohibits any type of open burning. This rule is in effect due to an abundance of post-winter dead/dry vegetation especially in the rural areas. The natural dryness of this vegetation can easily lead to large uncontrollable wildfires occurring.
I would guess that on some evenings, especially when the weather is cool and dry (like we have been experiencing recently), there are hundreds of firepits in use throughout the city at any given time. If you intend to use a firepit or better yet, before you purchase one, my advice is to first ask your neighbors (next door and behind) if they would mind if you were to burn fires in your yard. Many yards in the city are relatively small as compared to larger lots common in nearby towns (Amherst, Wheatfield, Grand Island etc.). In many cases the smaller lots do not provide enough room for the smoke to dissipate before it reaches a neighbor’s property. People who suffer from COPD or allergies can be greatly affected by smoke or smoke odors drifting into their home. It is for that reason the fire code states that burning in a firepit may be deemed illegal. A common situation we encounter involves a fire left smoldering overnight. Please extinguish your fire completely by pouring water on it before you leave it be. Just last November, the Sheridan park Fire District experienced a serious fire to a structure caused when fire from an unattended backyard firepit, spread to the home.
My other advice is to keep the fire small and respect your neighbors. Many times, we are called to investigate a firepit complaint and find a large fire burning with a group people (often drinking) and loud music playing late into the evening. This type of situation will no doubt result in the fire being put out. When we encounter an illegal fire, we typically explain the rules to the resident and issue them a “notice of violation” along with a written list of the rules. If someone continuously violates the rules or refuses to extinguish an illegal fire, our crews will have a Police Officer come to the scene to issue a “Written Summons” with a court date where the responsible party will have to answer to the violation.
If anyone has any questions regarding this matter, please feel free to contact me by email or phone.