Anayat Durrani is a reporter for U.S. News and World Report.
Fireflies. Backyard parties. S’mores. Warm summer nights in your yard around the fire pit can make for wonderful memories with family and friends. And this outdoor feature is still just as popular as ever. In its Residential Landscape Architecture Trends Survey, the American Society of Landscape Architects found that fire pits and fireplaces are the most requested outdoor design addition, according to the 800 landscape architects who were surveyed.
For many homeowners, fire pits are a focal point of summer evening entertaining, which is why it’s so important to make safety around your fire pit a priority. Here are some tips to ensure everyone stays safe this summer.
1. Get approval from your local authorities
The last thing you want to do is sink a bunch of money into a fire pit and discover that it’s not permitted in your area. Some cities put restrictions on when—or even if—people are allowed to have open fires.
“Local weather and air quality conditions may make it dangerous to start fires at certain times, both for the potential to ignite a wildfire and the potential for worsening air quality that can impact people’s health,” says Michele Steinberg, wildfire division director for the National Fire Protection Association.
To make sure you’re in compliance and not creating a potential hazard, Steinberg advises homeowners to check with their local fire department or municipality for any restrictions before burning.
2. Place it in the right spot
Fire pits can add to the beauty and relaxing ambiance of any backyard. But finding the right spot for your fire pit (flat, spacious, not too close to the house) is the first step in safety.
“Fire pits should be at least 10 feet away from the house or any structure,” says Steinberg.
It’s also not wise to place a portable fire pit on a wooden deck. You should also consider the direction the wind blows in your yard; strong winds could create a fire hazard.
3. Use the right type of wood
Once you have your fire pit, you’re going to be itching to try it out. But fire pit owners should make sure they use the right kind of wood—they’re not all the same. Experts recommend against burning pressurized wood, because it may contain toxins that, when ignited, can release noxious fumes. Using seasoned hardwood like oak, maple, cherry, or hickory is recommended.
As for the stuff that should stay far away from your fire pit, Steinberg says you should never burn plastics, construction debris, treated lumber, or tires, because these materials contain toxins that can be harmful to people and animals when burned.
4. Light it right
Lighting a fire pit allows you to enjoy its warm glow under the twinkling stars. But, when you fire up your pit, you should take extra precautions. You can’t just throw gasoline on it and hope for the best, because the fire could get out of control. Instead, experts recommend using a commercial fire starter stick and kindling.
“One should never, ever use gasoline, kerosene, or other flammable or combustible liquids on fires in fire pits or campfires,” says Steinberg.
5. Get a screen
Burning any fire at home, even outside, comes with risks, but using screens can help prevent an injury from flying sparks. Some municipalities even require homeowners to use fire-pit screens on top of open flames. For example, Woodbridge Township in New Jersey requires fire pits to be covered by wire mesh or some other screening material.
Fire-pit owners should select cast-iron or steel fire-pit screens to keep the fire contained.
6. Look into insurance
In some parts of the United States—particularly regions prone to wildfire—homeowners have to disclose their fire pit to their insurance company. Before you invest in an outdoor fire feature, check with your insurance agent what impact a fire pit may have on your homeowner policy and whether you need to increase your coverage limits. This also includes reviewing liability insurance, should one of your guests be injured or a neighbor’s property damaged by the fire pit.
Farmers Insurance spokesman Trevor Chapman says the possibility of costly legal action is a big reason why it’s important that a fire pit be properly installed, or built to code.
In addition, Chapman advises that fire pit owners have an easily accessible fire extinguisher on hand, and that they consider establishing rules for use of the fire pit, particularly with children in the house.
Anayat Durrani is a reporter for U.S. News and World Report. A versatile journalist, her work has been featured in Military Officer Magazine, California Lawyer Magazine, American Scholar Magazine, PracticeLink magazine and more.