Winter is coming—the temperature just dropped 30ºF today, and we’re looking at getting a fire pit in our backyard. The only problem we’re not sure if it’s allowed or not. So, I did some more research to check. Here’s what I found.
It’s generally legal to use backyard fire pits in most US states, provided you follow local laws and regulations. As cities and counties regulate the use of fire pits, check by viewing your county’s website or calling your local fire department. Backyard fire pits are usually limited to 3 ft in diameter and 2 ft tall.
But what’s the difference between a recreational and open fire, and how do we make sure our fire pits stay legal? Let’s take a closer look (but not too close).
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Can You Have A Fire Pit In Your Backyard?
Gas Fire Pits
Both propane and natural gas fire pits burn clean and are appropriate to use in most cities and counties. As a result of their clean-burning and low-risk, gas fire pits are generally labeled as decorative appliances and not heating or cooking appliances.
Wood Fire Pits
Wood fire pits are allowed in most backyards if you have the proper space and clearance (more on this later), but it ultimately comes down to your city and county’s rules.
As wood fire pits don’t burn clean and contribute to particulates in the air, they have more limitations.
These particles mix with existing air pollution from cities and pose a challenge for them, especially if thousands of homes are using fires at the same time.
Outdoor recreational fires can become a considerable source of fine-particle air pollution – especially in some metro areas.Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Add to this the fire risk in times of drought, etc, and it makes sense why each city and county has to have its own regulations around fire pits.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to check if fire pits are allowed in your backyard.
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How To Check if Fire Pits are Allowed in Your Area
- Contact your local fire department. You can find their phone number by Googling your county and “fire department phone number”.
- If they are allowed, check your county’s website for any active burn bans before using your fire pit
For example, here in Austin, Texas, fire pits and “portable outdoor fireplaces” are allowed and labeled as recreational (as long as they follow the common rules, shown below).
Before burning, the EPA recommends to check the air quality in your area. A good way to check is with Airnow.gov
Common Rules for Fire Pits
The majority of fire pits are defined as recreational fires.
A recreational fire is defined in the Fire Code as:
“An outdoor fire burning materials other than trash 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.”Fire Code, Austintexas.gov
So, if you’re not using an outdoor fireplace, BBQ grill, or BBQ pit, your fire pit is most likely defined as a recreational fire.
Here’s what my city of Austin, Texas requires for my backyard fire pit to be legal:
- Fire must be at least 25 feet from structures and other combustible materials
- Fuel area may not exceed 3 feet in diameter and 2 feet in height
- Only solid fuels are allowed (no trash)
- Dry grass, leaves and other combustibles must be cleared for a minimum of 10 feet around the fire area
- Any condition which could cause a fire to spread within 25 feet of a structure must be eliminated
- Fire must be constantly attended by a competent adult
- A portable fire extinguisher with a minimum 4-A rating, or alternative means of extinguishment such as a garden hose, must be in place for immediate use
- Fires emitting smoke determined to be harmful to surrounding property owners, or when atmospheric conditions or local circumstances make such fires hazardous, will be immediately extinguished
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Open Burning (& Permits)
Open burning does not include recreational fires and is generally referring to burning trash without an enclosed chamber. This is common for work-related fires. Open burning typically requires permits while recreational fires such as fire pits, outdoor fireplaces, and campsites don’t.
Burn bans are temporary bans by the county for most fire types. This is either to preserve air quality or reduce the risk of fire in times of drought or other extreme conditions. Before using your fire pit or fireplace, check if there’s an active burn ban on your county’s website.
If you’d like to see an example, here’s what my burn ban looks like in Travis county, Austin, Texas.
There are also 2 levels of burn bans. Here’s how the USDA Forest Service defines them:
Stage 1 Burn Ban
During stage 1 burn bans, the following acts are prohibited until further notice:
- Building, maintaining, attending, or using a fire, campfire or stove fire except within a designated recreation site, or on their own land, and only within an owner-provided fire structure (see definition).
- Smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle, building, or designated recreation site, or while stopped in an area at least three feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable materials.
Stage 2 Burn Ban
During stage 2 burn bans, the following acts are prohibited until further notice:
- Building, maintaining, attending, or using a fire, campfire, or stove fire.
- Smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle or building, a designated recreation site or while stopped in an area at least three feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable materials.
- Operating motorized vehicles off designated roads and trails in accordance with existing travel management plans.
- The following acts are prohibited from 1:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. A patrol is required for one hour following cessation of all work as described in a, b and c below.
- Operating a chainsaw or other equipment powered by an internal combustion engine for felling, bucking, skidding, processing, road building and woodcutting during industrial operations or fire wood gathering.
- Blasting, welding, or other activities that generate flame or flammable material.
- Using an explosive.
Are Fire Pits Included in Burn Bans?
According to the USDA Forest Service, backyard fire pits and campfires are banned in stage 1 and 2 burn bans. To check if your county has an active burn ban and which types of burning are allowed, contact your local fire department. There are some exceptions to burn bans such as burning on developed recreational land.
A developed recreational site is a privately owned commercial campground, tribal, or agency owned campground or picnic area.
In regards to fire pit use, here’s what the USDA Forest Service says,
“Personally owned charcoal grills, fire pans, wood or charcoal fueled “sheep herder” stoves etc. are restricted when we are in Stage I fire restrictions.”USDA Forest Service
In this context, “fire pan” is the same as “fire pit”. So, fire pits are prohibited in stage 1 and 2 burn bans.
Gas fire pits are allowed in stage 1 and 2 burn bans as long as they’re solely burning propane (liquid or gas).
Remember, there are exceptions to both stages of burn bans, so make sure to check the USDA Forest Service Fire Restrictions FAQ and contact your local fire department for more information.
Safety Tips for Fire Pits
|What to Burn||What Not to Burn|
|Hardwood (Oak, Hickory, Apple, etc.)||Wet (Green) Wood|
|Seasoned (Dry) Wood||Trash|
|Painted or Treated Wood|
- Burn seasoned hardwood for the hottest, cleanest, and most efficient flame. Common hardwoods include oak and hickory. After being cut, firewood typically takes about 6-12 months to season and has 20% moisture content or less.
- Keep a hose nearby that has the water on when using a fire pit. Also, keep a fire extinguisher and a bucket of sand (to smother the fire) nearby as extra precautions.
- Only buy and burn locally sourced wood to avoid transporting pests such as termites
- Don’t burn in an enclosed space. If you’re burning indoors, make sure you’re using a fireplace, wood stove, or vented appliance certified for indoor use.
- Contact your local fire department if you’re unsure if your county allows fire pits. They’ll be able to walk you through the details of a fire pit in your backyard. This is the best way to avoid fines and potential fire risk.