The American right to burn stuff



While researching general trends in gardening for 2008, I found that outdoor fire pits were (forgive me) hotter than ever. Paradoxically, though, the same search engine results that yielded this hype also produced sober warnings about how wood-burning fire pits and outdoor fireplaces were an increasing source of air pollution—as well as fire hazards (which they’d always been). So, as more consumers buy fire pits and outdoor fireplaces than ever before, more communities are trying to regulate their use. To wit:

St. Clair, Michigan: An ordinance has long prohibited open burning, “defined as the burning of any materials in which products of combustion are emitted directly into the air without passing through a stack or chimney from an enclosed chamber.” (12/12/07)

Kernersville, North Carolina: “No open burning of any type is allowed within the town limits because of the drought that has affected the area, North Carolina and the Southeast this year.” (12/17/07)

Watertown, Wisconsin: “Under the proposed ordinance, any resident who takes part in burning outdoors—including those with commercial fire pits—is now required to obtain a permit from the city clerk’s office for a $5 fee. The ordinance also requires that fires cannot be located less than 10 feet from any property line and less than 20 feet from any building or structure.” (1/03/08)

Lockport, New York: “Lockport Common Council followed the request of Fire Chief Thomas Passuite to prohibit outdoor wood burning firepits, fireplaces, fire bowls, chimeneas or any similar device. The Council also banned outdoor furnaces or boilers.” (7/04/07)

In California, Arizona, and other wildfire-prone states, even indoor fireplaces and wood-burning stoves face regulation and seasonal prohibition.

There’s an organization devoted to this problem: Burning Issues. From their site: According to the American Lung Association, in addition to particulate matter air pollution, wood smoke emissions contain components such as carbon monoxide; various irritant gases such as nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde; and chemicals known or suspected to be carcinogens, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and dioxin.

In Buffalo, where I live, you can’t burn anything outside. You can use your grill or your outdoor kitchen, and that’s it. Which is fine by me. We have four seasons here. If it’s cold, you put on a jacket or go inside. In the winter, an outdoor fire’s not going to help you. In the summer, it’s too hot for one. I think we should take the weather as it comes and not try to heat the outside (more than we already are). What’s next? Air conditioners outside? If people need the spectacle of flames, there are emission-free and possibly sustainable ways to produce them.

And yet. It’s not just nostalgia for rural bonfires and maybe vague memories of the Campfire Girls song. We resist regulation. I found this comment (and many like it) on one of the websites where a leaf burning ban was being discussed: “I love in the fall when all the leaves are gathered up and burned. I love the smell and the sun shining through the smoke. I can’t wait until idiots like these ban everything and we cover the world in little white padded rooms that we can live in and eat tasteless low calorie food and there are no more beautiful things in life.”

I can understand missing leaf fires, I guess, though I haven’t seen one in years. But I have less sympathy for fire pits and—I really hate this name—chimeneas. What do you think, GR readers? Are outdoor fire bans more loathsome evidence of the nanny state or sensible protections of our lungs and property?

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Okay, I’ll weigh in as a long-time owner of a chimenea myself to reveal that I’ve used it exactly TWICE. Looks cool, performs badly. The circle of friends warming themselves around it was a dream never to be fulfilled because only one person – sitting directly at the mouth of the thing – gets warmed by it.
    This topic reminds me of the bad old days of cigarette-smoker freedom, when a large chunk of the population, including myself, suffered both obvious and hidden consequences from the smoke of others. So if outdoor fires are damaging people’s health, I say ban ’em!

  2. Driving back from Florida I knew the drought induced outdooor fire ban had been lifted in North Carolina by all the smoke rising from the hills and valleys as I got closer to home. Firepit smoke rises bigger and different than indoor fireplace chimney smoke. Reading the paper online confirmed the lifting of the fire ban.

    The simple fact of the matter in regard to all government/legal regulations across the board is that as more and more rats fill the cage it takes more and more regulations to keep the rats from devouring each other in a bloody spectacle.

    Here in rural NC until the counties or state provide greenwaste pickup or drop off sites they will not outlaw outdoor burning. In the dense forest there has to be an effective way to get rid of the rubbish generated by the forest.

  3. I tottaly understand banning of burning when there is a drought. Or in a neighborhood that houses are real close. But to enforce a city wide burn ban?

  4. I’m going to concur on the chimenea thing…they do look pretty cool, but they never struck me as particular utilitarian.

    I will admit that I have friends down the street with a fire pit, though, and I love sitting around it — not in winter or summer — but in Fall and Spring when the seasons are turning and it’s too cold to sit outside unaided. But after an Iowa winter, any opportunity to get outside is most welcome, and if it takes a fire to make that happen, I do love that.

    I concur with Curtis — we definitely need citywide or countywide or whatever-wide burn bans when droughts are in effect — there’s no question about that. And I think a little regulation never hurt anyone. But I’d hate to see them completely outlawed everywhere.

  5. My city has a general ban on outdoor burning although occasional fire pits seem to be allowed. Having lived with forest fires and the local sawmill’s beehive burner’s smoke pall (shut down at last happily), I am glad to have a ban on fires. It may be fun for the person having the fire but it is a bit like second-hand cigarette smoke for the rest of us – we get more of the smoke than the person making the fire/smoking the cigarette.
    Added to which most people don’t know how to make a smokeless fire, tend to burn noxious materials (saves a trip to the dump), and fallen leaves are much better used for mulch and compost than burned.
    I’m with Christopher all the way, including the bit on the need to regulate communities.
    The latest in outdoor living appears to be, according to CBC, weather-proofed TVs and lazyboys for the garden. Like I want to hear/see some-one else’s television – what’s wrong with birdsong, wind rush, quietness? I go outside to escape from inside, I want it to be a different experience.

  6. I think that most people who choose to burn wood, leaves, whatever either indoors or outside just don’t understand the impact on our environment and health. If they did, they wouldn’t choose to contaminate the air. But then, maybe I give people too much credit…

    Until people start making choices about their behavior based on public and environmental health, I’m just hunkey dorey with municipal bans on outdoor fires.

    –Robin (Bumblebee)

  7. Two years ago, I was burning some branches (and more than a few leaves) in my four-legged portable fire pit. My neighbor behind me, rather than asking me to stop, called the fire department without my knowing.

    When the fire truck showed up (lights, no siren), I was sitting the driveway, hose in hand, watching the embers of smokeless fire in the fireplace surrounded by concrete.

    The first thing the fireman said, as he walked toward me with a fire ax and oxygen tank was, “Hey, NICE back yard!”

    The second thing he told me was that open fires are not allowed in the city of Buffalo. He told me, in the future, put a grate on it, throw on a few hotdogs and call it a barbecue. That’s legal.

  8. Maybe I’m too precious for words, but I can’t stand having that campfire smell all over me when it’s done. Makes me want a soapy shower. And an indoor fireplace? One more thing to clean. I don’t know what the fire regulations here in San Francisco, but I smell fireplace fires now and then.

    My cousin recently married a man from El Salvador. They went to visit his family there in a very poor area. They don’t have trash pick-up, so everyone burns their trash, and every day there’s the thick, stinky smell of a trash fire. One more reason we’re very privileged to live here.

  9. Burn leaves? Burn up all that good compost material? What kind of gardener would do that? Sheesh.

    Outdoor burning is banned within city limits where I live, and tightly regulated outside city limits. It’s just too easy for a burn pile to turn into a brush fire.

  10. At last count, 25% of my neighbors have some type of outdoor wood-burning feature. With the continued emphasis on them as must-have garden features, this number will continue to rise, as will my misery. If smoke knew enough to stick around the property of those creating it*, then I’d have no problem with these features. They’d breathe the smoke they created, not me. But smoke wanders with the air currents – at greater distances than you’d think – stinking and polluting the air of those who wish to be smoke-free. And there’s the rub (my apologies to Shakespeare). Where does one’s right to burn end and another’s right to breathe begin? How do you justify an action when it negatively affects another’s health and well-being?

    I support banning outdoor wood-burning features. I do understand the romance of fire but wood is not the only option. There are heat-and ambiance-producing alternatives. My neighbors inexpensively converted a corner flower box on their deck into a fabulous propane-burning fireplace, complete with slate tile and wooden mantle. And boy, does it put out the heat! If only more of my neighbors followed suit.

    *If smoke didn’t waft away, I’d bet there’d be less fans of firepits. Watch a group around one sometime. People bob and weave – or get up and move – to get out of smoke’s way. Does anyone ever take in a good deep lungful of the stuff and say, “Aaaaaah, that’s good!”? Highly unlikely.

    To Garden Rants’ owners: I wrote an article on this topic. May I post a link to it here?

  11. Oops, meant to add a hearty thank you for bringing this subject up. I think it’s a topic that needs attention and discussion. With exceedingly rare exceptions, print magazines do not address the smoke issue even though they seldom show fire features that burn anything but wood. Rather myopic, if you ask me.

  12. This subject is near and dear to my lungs, it also hits me right in the pocketbook on many different levels.
    I am a landscape designer who works in a very affluent area. My clients are highly educated , most have several children , modest to large estates, and entertain large and small groups of people for their wide ranging charitable and philanthropic events.

    I am often hired to design outdoor entertainment areas that include an outdoor fireplace or fire pit.

    I also have only 1.5 lungs. Half of my left lung was removed due to a hereditary lung disease disorder.

    Breathing clean air is important to me in order to live and stay out of the ho$pital.

    So you can see where my conundrum lies.

    Obviously I need to work to make money, but if the money I make designing firepits is going to put me and others in the hospital and pollute the environment I cannot ethically agree to put myself and others in harms way.

    So what’s a working girl to do ? – EDUCATE and offer a non toxic polluting alternative .

    All of our designed fire places use natural or propane gas or denatured alcohol . The smokeless flames burn clean and provide actual warming heat.

    For those who have those inexpensive wood burning firepits it is usually quite easy to renovate them into clean smokeless burning fire pits by using a propane tank ( just like the one on your bbq ) and a stainless steel burning ring.

    Not only is a propane fire pit more healthful and environmentally friendly to use but it is more convenient to light and extinguish, your clothes and hair won’t smell like a sooty smoldering log , thus the kids won’t need another bath before being tucked in for the night and you will generally be a lot warmer using gas vs. burning wood.

    I am definitely for banning all environmentally polluting fires outside and also am a proponent for banning interior wood burning fireplaces that spew huge amounts of toxic
    carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen , volatile organic compounds and dangerous particulate matter into the air.

    Like Lisa, I too have written about the ill effects of wood burning smoke in graphic detail on my blog –

  13. Lisa, please do post the link.

    Michelle, thanks for adding that link. I read your blog and it’s on of the reasons I posted on this, as well as Lisa’s comments on my prognostication post.

  14. I agree it puts more pollutants in the atmosphere. But!

    How about automobiles to get from here to there though.

    And what about all the wildfires before this country was even formed. I guess the Pilgrims were also polluting when they had to burn wood for heat.

  15. True, any action we take has an impact on the environment, Curtis. That’s basic physics – we don’t operate in a vacuum. As Newton put it, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. And yes, we’ve been doing our share of bad things to Mother Earth for some time (I know I can do better!). Just because pollution has occurred, and unfortunately will continue to occur, by the hand of man and by nature doesn’t let any of us off the hook of culpability.

    Wood may be renewable but my lungs are not (is that too long for a bumper sticker?). Lung and health problems as a result of smoke and air pollution increase medical costs, which increases insurance costs and out-of-pocket expenses for those of us fortunate enough to have health insurance.

    Thank you, Eliz, for allowing me to post the link to my article. Disclaimer: My original title was simply “A Warming Trend.” The addition of “in Fireplaces” was added afterwards and yes, I do see the irony that the Google ads accompanying my article include wood-burning features – but that’s out of my control. And please ignore a few minor typos/grammatical errors – I’m off to contact admin to get these corrected.

  16. I’m afraid I’m going to be in the minority on this one. I LOVE my firepit. We only use it in the spring and fall (and occasionally on an especially warm winter day), and it’s a small one — only about 15 inches square. I know that the smoke drifts some, but I also know that my neighbor (whose yard the smoke drifts into the most) doesn’t mind. He keeps bringing me wood to burn — left over oak flooring scraps (unvarnished of course), a pear tree that he cut down in his own yard, and an unidentified fir tree that he also cut down in his own yard.

    Now, I’ve also been on the other side of the issue. A neighbor on the other side of us started burning something in his firepit this fall and the noxious fumes were horrible. I asked him one day what he was using for wood and he apologized saying that he had used a lot of lighter fluid to start it the first time he used it and it must still be burning off. Not the smartest guy ever. After several weeks my eyes stopped watering everytime he burned something, and it got cold enough to close the windows for the season. But I’d like to believe that I’m a better neighbor than that and I know my firepit has never made my eyes water.

    That said, I have no idea if my town has an ordinance banning outdoor burning and to be completely honest, I’m not going to check. I know ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it, but I wouldn’t be able to use the firepit again if I knew it was illegal — and I LOVE my firepit! There is nothing like sitting by a fire on a cool night watching the bats fly overhead, looking at the stars, and hearing the first owl hoot. We use pinon wood most of the time which smells fantastic as it burns and keeps the mosquitos away.

  17. I live in one of the three or four most polluted counties in the country. We have “no burn” days when both outdoor and indoor wood fires are banned. While we don’t have fires often (we have a very curious cat and keeping the cat from singeing himself makes it more hassle than it’s worth), there’s nothing cozier than sitting with a good book, husband, cats, mulled cider and a fire in the fireplace.

    New houses here can’t have wood-burning fireplaces at all (except for the very efficient wood pellet inserts) and I expect that within a few years, all wood fires will be banned entirely. It’s too bad, but a small price to pay for less disgusting air.

  18. We have two wood burning fireplaces in our house that we only burn once a year, Christmas Eve.
    Last time we went camping there was a complete fire ban, even in the fire pit, and even though it was raining at the time.(Not very pleasant sitting in that damp tent in a thunderstorm).
    We humans have a primordial relationship with fire, and it is hard to give up the coziness that a good fire imparts. I have toyed with the idea of getting a fire pit, but I don’t imagine I will. Very mixed feelings on this topic. Good job Elizabeth!

  19. Here in north MA we have to buy a $15 burning permit and call the fire dept on the day we decide to burn – brush and branches only, no leaves or household items. We live in a semi-rural area, a lot of homes are on 1 acre plus, and its burn or use a noise and air polluting wood chipper ( if you have one, which I don’t) or hire a landscaper for lots of money to chip the stuff for you! We can only burn on days when there is no or little wind, from December thru May.The fire dept may come and check on you to make sure you have followed the rules ( distance from homes, attending fire, hose pipe ready!). Never had any problems. My neighbour, on the other hand, has a wood burning stove that is his main source of heat. He buys or picks up wood from anywhere, and its usually pretty green, so from October to May I often have the smell of whatever he is burning wafting my way – sometimes pretty stinky. But this is New England, and heating oil is nearly $4 gallon ( wanna see my oil bill? It’s rated NC17) so he will continue to burn wood all winter long. And I will be burning the branches and brush from my 1.7 acres because I feel one afternoon of bonfire is less polluting and dangerous than running a wood chipper for hours and hours (and less annoying to my neighbours!).

  20. Wish that Duluth, MN had a ban on wood burning stoves. My neighbor has 2 attached to fireplace and burns whatever he wants in it.

    City will not address the issue because it is a God given right for these citizens to heat their home for cheap.

    Hate the smell of his smoke and others who do not care about their neighbors. We had to spend a fortune on new windows, a hospital grade air cleaner, and close all doors to bathrooms and laundry room to keep the stink out of our home. It is in the gargage though.

    Disgusting because these are doctors who should know better and make enough money to heat their home with cleaner methods.

  21. In an unbelievably timely way, there is an air quality warning up from the National Weather Service for particulates today here in Portland, and along the southwest coast in Maine.

    Some of it is probably car emissions, but with the price of oil, I can guarantee a lot of it is from fireplaces. I like to sleep with a window cracked at night, and lately it’s been all wood smoke, all the time.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen an air quality warning in winter before. They are rare to begin with, usually it’s summer, and it’s an ozone warning.

  22. Like Michelle Dervis, I also design and install outdoor fireplaces and firepits for my clients. They are gas burning and topped with colored glass. Clean, beautiful and great radient heat. We don’t have to ban the outdoor fire experience all together, just encourage people to use “cleaner” burning sources.

  23. I agree, Shirley, encouraging people to choose cleaner burning alternatives is a step in the right direction. I will be talking to my neighbors before firepit season, hoping to do just this.

    I will also be talking to my city council. In my area, it is illegal for smoke from one neighbor’s property to enter another’s and cause damage or be a nuisance. Someone might hear “neighbor” and think “next door”, but, as I wrote, smoke can travel a long distance (I know we get smoke from 2-3 blocks away). Our regional fire and rescue agency enforces the law. The number of complaints they receive and respond to has grown astronomically in recent years.

    At the same time, my city – and all others within the jurisdiction of the regional fire and rescue agency – has no regulation regarding firepits and such. This is counterproductive (gee, big surprise, regulatory agencies not working in tandem), like closing the barn door after the horse is already out.

    When firepits were the exception, this discrepancy wasn’t an issue, but that’s not the case today. As I wrote, 25% of my neighbors have firepits that they use regularly. It’s been 3 or more years since the air wasn’t filled with smoke on a summertime weekend. The city needs to update their regulations. This is a livability and a health issue, and while I’m not keen on regulating people to death, this is a situation that I don’t see resolving itself without regulation.

  24. These bans make sense in densely populated areas and during droughts. Here in rural middle America where we easily can be without power for a week after an ice storm — that’d be ridiculous. Staying elsewhere for the duration isn’t an option when there’s livestock to be tended & access roads are too icy for travel. A wood stove or fireplace as a backup for heat and cooking is essential here.

    Wood smoke doesn’t bother me, but if you want to ban the addition of ‘fragrance’ to every consumer products imaginable — I’m all for that. I’d like to be able to use public transportation, attend a conference, go to the grocery store without wheezing and headaches from an allergic reaction to somebody’s perfume, the scented trash bags, air fresheners, deodorants, shampoos, dishsoap, detergent, fabric softener, etc. . . which brings us back to the one-size-fits-all concept, eh?

  25. I love “burning stuff” as much as the next pyromaniac–so much so that you would think I was a 20-something young man and not a 48-year-old woman. However, I live in a basin prone to thermal inversions (the Reno-Sparks area in Nevada) in summer and winter. If we didn’t have frequent winds to clear some of the junk out of our air, we would probably have to wear particulate masks and our air quality would be in the “poor” range year-round. we have frequent bans on burning of any kind, including bans on the use of wood stoves and pellet stoves because of the poor air quality. I won’t even bother to consider the issue of wildfires: most people around here DON’T get stupid and burn stuff on Red Flag (high fire danger) days.

    Even though we have those winds, and in spite of my pyromaniac desires, I don’t want to contribute to the poor air quality we endure as it is, nor do I want others making things worse for me. I have mild asthma, and I just don’t take kindly to anyone making it worse.

  26. Sensible protections of our lungs and property. Americans have no right to burn stuff.

    The small village where I live in southeastern PA still allows burn barrels, and my neighbor who is too cheap to buy trash pickup burns household waste in it several times a week. Another neighbor burns huge piles of leaves all day long on any nice day he can find in the fall. Several in my community are working to get burning stopped this year. There are real health risks from smoke inhalation and in the case of burning plastics, cancer-causing dioxins.

    At the risk of contradicting myself, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to allow a small amount of brush burning and the like in agricultural or truly rural areas, where population density is low.

    For the most part though, if there’s any “right” here, it’s got to be a right to breathe clean air.

  27. In the small town just to the west of us, there is a rule that outdoor fires are allowed for cooking purposes only. The fire doesn’t need to be in a grill or anything, but the purpose must be cooking. People are known to keep a can of beans on hand, just in case someone comes by to check on their fire.

  28. I can understand not burning during drought conditions, but otherwise, having a small backyard bonfire while enjoying your surroundings is harmless. Given your neighbors are in agreement. I find few things more theraputic than sitting in my backyard, surrounded by nature, lost in the glow of a fire, while my kids share stories and create memories.

  29. I’m guilty of having bought a fire pit for my husband. He had mentioned that he wanted 1, & without really thinking about it, I bought it. That was over a year ago. He’s used it a couple of times, but I wish I hadn’t bought it. I’m the person who’s always complaining about people who burn their leaves, & now I realize I’m also contributing to the problem. My husband & I are environmentalists, so you’d think he wouldn’t be in favor of burning wood either. I guess neither of us had really thought about it until I started seeing letters in the local paper about it a couple of weeks ago. We need to get rid of it & stop the burning.

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  31. I find it ironic that the nation is so eager to regulate small scale domestic burns when our industries produce a far greater threat to our health and environment. Let’s ask ourselves to be sensible. Your car produces more toxins than my fire pit. When an airplane takes off it is doing more to pollute the atmosphere than a year of burns. Personal responsibility people. The citizen must be assumed competent and consequences should be severe for negligence.

  32. I am not sure why you would want to ban wood burning and not mention the banning of cars. Do you believe that burning wood is more harmful than the burning of fossil fuels? Go to the airport and stand at the end of the runway when the jets take off take a deep breath then we will discuss banning firewood.

  33. At a crossroads here. I live in a city that allows burning under strict guidelines, of which, I am happy to follow. I know the damage it does to my world and my elderly neighbors. BUT, those elderly neighbors are also not responsible enough to trim the overgrown trees and brush that have cover over my shed roof. Also, my city does not provide any assistance with removal of brush but once a year, leaving my yard overrun with branches, limbs and at this moment one third of a tree. Its not work in my yard, its WAR! One I plan on winning. Oddly enough, I was searching for composting ideas and how-to guides on the same when I found this site. I don’t like burning off brush but I have not many choices. I am going to compost some but to do all isn’t practical. Hey, maybe I can sell some good healthy compost to my neighbors!?!?!

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