As the coronavirus pandemic wears on and colder weather sets in, Americans who have been gathering outdoors, where it’s safer, during the warmer months are confronted with how to continue to get together without heading indoors. One way to keep those socially distanced gatherings going is to use a firepit to warm your outdoor space.
Firepits that burn wood or are powered by gas, such as propane, are widely available at numerous price points at hardware stores and big-box retailers; buy one with clear instructions for setup and use. Although both varieties are safe when used properly, Brian Humphrey, a firefighter and spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department, prefers propane pits because they are easy to turn on and off and don’t smoke. Check with your local government for permit and safety requirements if you plan to construct your own firepit, which can be safe as long as it’s built properly.
“The biggest problems with firepits we see are the ones created ad hoc two hours before the family gathering,” Humphrey said. “But one that’s built properly in advance can be very safe.”
Here are some tips from Humphrey and other experts on how to make the most of your firepit – safely.
Position your firepit on solid ground, away from structures. Tony Falwell, fire marshal for the District of Columbia, recommends placing your firepit on a noncombustible surface at least 15 feet away from all structures, including fences. Don’t put it on a wood deck, Falwell said, because wind could blow embers onto the deck or someone could knock the firepit over.
Place the pit out of the way of busy foot traffic. Avoid spots where children and pets could disturb it or knock it over. And remember that heat travels. Don’t place a firepit near vegetation and overhang from trees and bushes, and don’t put it under structures with low roofs, such as a covered porch or gazebo. Never burn a fire in a pit in an enclosed structure such as a shed or garage.
Learn how to safely build and tend a fire. You don’t need to build a large fire to relax in your backyard. A fire that’s two or three feet high is “within most people’s comfort zone,” Humphrey said. “When the flames get smaller, people can generally get closer.” Start small and build carefully. Add one log at a time until each one catches – this will help the fire burn longer, Humphrey said. Light the fire and make sure it’s under control before people are seated, and try to place people who might be sensitive to smoke on the opposite side of where it’s blowing. Never leave a fire burning unattended.
Use dry wood. “Damp firewood either won’t ignite or can cause popping or shoot embers around,” Humphrey said. He recommends looking for evenly sized logs of dry, locally sourced hardwood; most hardware stores carry this. And both Falwell and Humphrey advised against reusing partially burned logs.
Never use accelerants, such as lighter fluid, in a firepit. The fire could grow too large and quickly spiral out of control. Many packaged logs come with fire starters or lighting cubes; follow package instructions.
Don’t burn plastic, rubber, fabric or other materials that don’t belong in a firepit. They can cause unpleasant smells and produce lots of disruptive or toxic smoke, and burning them is bad for the environment. Research your city’s laws regarding what materials can be burned, Falwell said.
For propane firepits, Humphrey said, carefully read the instructions and be sure there’s a tight connection between the pit and the propane tank or supply line hookup; a loose connection could cause flammable gas to leak or cloud, which is extremely dangerous.
Dry, clear days with no wind are best for using a firepit.
“Wind is the single greatest issue because it could easily spread embers,” Humphrey said.
Have a plan to extinguish the fire if you see sudden cloud cover moving in or notice changes in the wind. Check local government resources to see if there are weather-related burning restrictions in place.
Stockpile supplies before you need them. A frantic search for water or a fire extinguisher wastes precious time if an emergency strikes. Humphrey recommends having several buckets with at least a gallon of water each. (He said you could put out a small fire using a bucket brigade technique). He and Falwell also suggest having a poker to safely adjust logs and rake ashes, protective eye equipment and gloves. If you plan to use a garden hose to put out a fire, make sure it is working properly and has enough slack to reach the firepit. Buy a fire extinguisher to keep on hand for emergencies, and learn how to use it properly ahead of time.
Designate a fire chief. Behaving recklessly invites mistakes and injuries, especially if alcohol is involved. Humphrey recommends designating at least one responsible, sober adult to monitor the fire and ensure that safety guidelines are followed. This person should see that items aren’t dropped into the fire, keep children and pets a safe distance from the flames and make sure the fire doesn’t grow too large, he said.
“It’s almost an innate human thing to want to play around with or challenge fire, but it’s not a good idea to do it,” he said.
Purchasing a cover or screen for the firepit can also help people keep a safe distance.
Properly dispose of ashes and logs. Safely extinguishing the fire and then disposing of spent ashes and logs is critical.
“Wood smolders for a long time, especially dense logs,” Falwell said. Logs and ashes could ignite fires even if they appear to be cold.
After the fire dies down or is extinguished, dump water into the pit until everything is soaked. Use a poker to rake the ashes and distribute the water, and wait for everything to cool. Falwell recommends going through these steps multiple times if necessary. Never put spent coals or logs directly into a trash can. Transfer the ashes or logs into a metal container with a tightly sealed lid. Put water in the container until all logs and ashes are submerged, and keep it away from structures until disposing of it in several days.
“It’s only safe to dispose of once it’s totally out,” Falwell said.
For propane pits, Humphrey said, turn the supply line off at the tank or source and let the fuel burn itself out before you turn off the burners. Keep up with necessary maintenance to be sure the pit works properly.
Wait until a firepit is cool and completely off before moving or storing it. A firepit can be safely stored in a garage or indoors as long as it’s off and disconnected.
Be respectful of your neighbors. Most of the complaints the D.C. fire department receives about recreational fires concern smoke, Falwell said. Especially in a city where houses and apartments are close together, and now when the pandemic has outsize respiratory effects, try to be considerate of how a recreational fire will affect your neighbors. It’s not a bad idea to tell neighbors when you’ll use your firepit, he said, so they’re not alarmed when they see or smell smoke.
Humphrey also recommends checking in with other people in your household, especially those who might have health issues, to make sure they won’t be disturbed by smoke.
Ask the pros for help. Both Falwell and Humphrey, who said their departments answer queries from residents about fire safety, suggested reaching out to your local fire department with questions.
“Don’t be scared to call if you have questions. We get calls all the time about firepits,” Falwell said.