Fire Pit Safety + Maintenance Guide For Your Backyard
Fire pits continue to be one of the most requested features in backyard landscape design and are essentially a must-have for Southern California homes. Prospective homeowners often have fire features on their list of wants for their new home, and current homeowners consistently have fire features on their wish list for backyard remodels.
Anyone who enjoys spending time outside by themselves, with their families, or for entertaining can enhance their outdoor living areas and make their time outside more enjoyable with the addition of a fire pit. This type of feature creates a cozy atmosphere for conversations and celebrations, provides a focal point where guests can gather, and makes your outdoor living area more inviting. Since Southern California’s fantastic weather allows us to entertain outdoors throughout the year, a fire pit is also a nice addition to keep your guests warm on colder days or when summer nights get chilly once the sun goes down.
Depending on the type of fire pit you build or buy, you and your guests might also be able to roast marshmallows and hotdogs, or you could even grill complete meals with the right accessories.
To help you get the most out of your fire pit, we have put together this guide for fire pit safety and maintenance. This will help you get started with the basics you need to know about making sure your pit is functioning properly and keeping you, your family, and your guests safe while gathered around the fire.
Fire Pit Safety Tips: Before You Build
Let’s start with 10 safety tips to consider before you purchase or build a fire pit. This will help you make choices about the type of pit you want, where to place it, and how to prepare for your first backyard fire.
1. Check local ordinances and regulations.
Before you make any plans or purchases, make sure you are allowed to have a fire pit and know the rules put forth by your local governing body. Your homeowners’ association, city, or county may regulate the size and placement of fire features, or they might not even allow them. So, it is always best to look into this before you make any type of investment towards adding a pit to your landscape design.
2. Understand local burn ordinances and burn bans.
Some areas, particularly those that have wildfire season or air quality issues, put burn ordinances or burn bans in place for the community’s safety. These generally pertain to wood-fueled fires, so that is something to keep in mind when you are choosing the type of fire pit to install.
Southern California residents can sign up to receive air quality alerts and no-burn day notifications for your neighborhood from the South Coast Air Quality Management District (South Coast AQMD).
3. Determine which fuel type is right for you.
The most common fuels for backyard fire pits are wood, propane, and natural gas. Natural gas and propane burn cleaner than wood, which means they are generally better for the environment and have less impact on air quality.
One of the best benefits of propane is the ease and quickness of starting a fire. Propane requires you to purchase and return propane tanks, which are readily available at many garden centers, home improvement stores, gas stations, and convenience stores. You will likely want to purchase a gauge to show the level of fuel in the tank and you may want to keep an extra tank on hand to make sure you do not run out of fuel in the middle of a party.
Natural gas also allows you to quickly and easily start the fire and burns cleaner than wood. The downside to natural gas is that you have to run a gas line to the fire pit location and have it hooked up to your fire pit. If you are hiring a professional to design and install your pit – and you already have other appliances that use gas – this is not a huge deal, but it is an additional expense and may require demo of existing hardscapes.
Wood may not be as good for the environment or local air quality, but for some folks, there is just no other option. There is nothing quite like the crackling of flames and tossing another log on the fire. Firewood is readily available, so it is easy to acquire, but you will need to make sure you have extra on hand so that you do not run out in the middle of your social gathering. Purchasing a bundle at a grocery store or liquor store can get you through one night, but if you plan on using your fire pit regularly, you are better off purchasing larger amounts from a supplier. In this case, you will need to find a spot to store your wood and will need to stack wood whenever you get an order. Depending on the services available in your area, you may also need to transport the wood yourself.
Another consideration when choosing fuel type is whether or not you plan to roast hotdogs or marshmallows over the flames. While you can roast over any of the above-mentioned options, it is possible to cause damage to a propane or natural gas fire pit from food bits or grease falling into the unit.
4. Choose your fire pit placement carefully.
There are several things to consider when choosing the safest location for your pit. One is proper ventilation. Fumes can be hazardous to your health, so it is imperative that any fire feature is located in a well-ventilated area. While you do not want your pit in an enclosed area, you do want your pit in a spot protected from wind. Windy conditions can blow embers far from your pit and could start a fire in your yard or a neighbor’s yard. If you live in a windy area, this is an important consideration during placement.
It is important to place your fire pit a safe distance from any structures and anything flammable in your yard. This distance will likely be defined within local fire pit regulations. For example, San Diego residents must keep recreational outdoor fires that are no larger than three feet in diameter and two feet in height and not in an approved container at least 25 feet from structures, while fires in an approved container must be at least 15 feet from structures. They also specifically say that portable outdoor fireplaces, such as chimineas must be 15 feet from any structure or combustible material.
Once you have narrowed down your options, make sure there are no tree branches or other fire hazards over your fire pit location. If you are placing a free-standing pit, check the included documents to find the manufacturer’s recommendations for placements as well.
5. Include a firebreak in the design.
Create a firebreak around your pit to reduce the potential for fire caused by sparks, embers, or a log accidentally falling out of the fire bowl.
For an attractive and functional firebreak, choose a hardscape that goes with the rest of your design. For example, you might consider a paving stone patio around the pit or a paving stone border filled in with gravel. Just keep in mind that you want the area to be easy to walk on and to provide a good surface for seating.
6. Make sure you have a spark screen.
If the fire pit you are installing does not come with a spark screen, get the bowl measurements and purchase one so that you will have it in time for your first fire. Using a spark screen is an important safety measure that helps keep potentially dangerous embers and sparks in the fire pit where they belong.
7. Clean your gutters.
Cleaning your gutters might sound like a strange way to prepare for safe fire pit use, but it really is important. Cleaning your gutters regularly should already be part of your wildfire safety plan, since embers can be carried on the wind and cause the debris in your gutters to catch fire. The same goes for fire pits: Sparks and embers can easily travel to your gutters, so make sure they stay free of leaves and other debris.
8. Have a plan to put out the fire quickly.
Before your first fire, be sure you have a plan in place if things get out of hand. You will need to respond quickly if the fire gets too big or escapes the fire pit, so know how you will put it out before you start it.
A fire extinguisher with a Class A rating is good to have on hand anyways, but even more important if you have outdoor fire features. Remember – it is not enough to just purchase the extinguisher; you also need to read the instructions, find a good place to store it, keep it serviced, and make sure that anyone who might use the fire pit knows how to use it.
Other options for putting fires out quickly include having a garden hose nearby or keeping a bucket of sand near your fire pit.
9. Consider hiring a contractor.
Free-standing, portable fire pits can be placed by anyone who can lift them, so you will not need a contractor for this type of fire feature. There are also simple, permanent fire pit designs that handy homeowners can likely do on their own, so if you are handy, you do not necessarily need a contractor to install a permanent fire pit either. However, because mistakes can be costly and harmful, you might want to consider hiring a contractor for this one. A professional who is aware of fire pit safety issues and is experienced in fire pit design and placement can help ensure that your home and guests are safe.
10. Safety train your household.
Before using your fire pit for the first time, make sure everyone in your household has at least some basic safety training, such as where the fire extinguisher is located, how to use the fire extinguisher, how far to stay away from the fire, how to safely start a fire, how to add wood to a fire, and what to do if their clothing catches fire.
Fire Pit Safety Tips: 15 Tips for Fire Pit Maintenance and Safety
Once you have your pit installed and it is time to start using your new fire feature, make sure you know how to keep your fire pit functioning properly and safely.
To get you started, here are 15 tips to help keep you, your family, and your guests safe when you are gathered around the fire.
1. Check wind conditions before each use.
Whether or not you live in a windy area, it is always best to check the wind conditions before you start a backyard fire. If the wind picks up unexpectedly after you have a roaring fire going, things can get out of hand quickly. Know which way the wind is blowing and how much wind is expected so that you can make sure you can keep your fire safely contained.
2. Check air quality and look for no-burn orders.
Before firing up your fire feature, make sure you will not be adding to unhealthy air quality or violating a no-burn order. You can sign up to receive alerts from South Coast AQMD.
3. Confirm fire extinguishing materials are on hand.
An important part of fire pit safety is being able to handle emergency situations quickly. This means having your fire extinguisher, bucket of sand, garden hose, or other fire extinguishing method nearby and ready to deploy right away.
4. Make sure the pit is clean and the area around the pit is clear of debris.
Remove any ashes from the fire bowl, make sure it is clean, and check the bowl for any damage that could make your backyard fire less safe. Also check the area around your fire pit to make sure it is clear of dry leaves, twigs, or other flammable debris.
5. Use the right fuel.
For gas-fueled fire pits, read the manufacturer’s instructions to make sure you use the correct fuel. For wood-burning pits, use only dry, seasoned firewood. Never burn treated wood, MDF, plywood, or painted or stained wood. You should also avoid wet or green (unseasoned) wood. If you have a wood-burning pit but would like to use a fuel option that is better for the environment and air quality, look into manufactured fire logs, biomass bricks, wood pellets, or other eco-friendlier options.
6. Avoid using lighter fluid.
Using lighter fluid to start wood fires releases chemical pollutants, has the potential of causing dangerous flare-ups, and is not necessary for starting a fire. So, while you might be tempted to take this shortcut to get your fire going, you can start a fire just fine without the use of accelerants.
7. Start slow and small.
If you are burning wood, take time to start the fire slowly and keep it small as you get it going.
It is best to use pre-made fire starters to get your fire going, since lighter fluid can be dangerous and polluting, and the conventional method of crumbling up paper to light the kindling can lead to burning paper escaping the fire bowl. Instead, use a fire starter or kindling to start your fire. Once it is going, build your fire slowly starting with small sticks and working your way up to your larger pieces of firewood as the fire gets established.
8. Size your firewood to your fire bowl.
To maintain a safe fire, make sure that each piece of firewood can fit completely inside the fire bowl without leaning against the side of the bowl or sticking out of the top.
9. Always use a spark screen.
If your fire pit did not come with a spark screen, buy one and keep it on hand to use every time you build a fire. Screens are integral to fire pit safety, since they help contain sparks and burning embers to help you maintain control of your fire.
10. Keep seating a safe distance from the fire pit.
Part of the point of having a fire pit is being able to gather around it with friends and family. In order to do this in a way that is safe for your guests, your patio furniture, and your property, set up seating a safe distance from the pit. Sitting or standing too close to the flames can lead to injury or damage directly from the flames or from sparks escaping the bowl.
To make it easier to manage how far chairs are from the fire pit, set up the chairs before your guests arrive. If folks are grabbing their own chairs, they are may set them too close to the fire. But if the chairs are already set up, folks are more likely to leave them where they are.
11. Never leave your fire pit unattended.
It is never a good idea to leave a fire unattended but, when it comes to your backyard fire pit, it is also against the law. Along with keeping fire pits 15 feet from structures and having fire extinguishing materials on hand, San Diego also requires all recreational fires to be constantly attended to.
When you plan to use your fire pit for a social gathering, keep this in mind while you plan the event. Make sure you can attend to the fire while also entertaining your guests by planning an outdoor dinner party or backyard movie night where you can attend to both your guests and the fire.
If you need to leave the fire pit area to make drinks or bring out food, assign fire pit duty to a responsible adult while you are away.
12. Stay mindful of kids and pets.
Children and pets may be drawn to the warmth of the fire or the flicker of the flames. Therefore, if there are children or animals in the area when you are using your fire pit, always make sure that they stay at least three feet from the pit. You may find it helpful to set up a barrier to help keep them safely away from the fire.
13. Use the right accessories for your fire pit.
Not all skewers and grills are intended for use with fire pits. When roasting marshmallows or hotdogs, use forks, skewers, and other fire pit accessories designed for use with open flames in outdoor fire features. If you plan on cooking on your fire pit, purchase a grill that properly fits your pit and outdoor cookware designed for grilling.
14. Always put out the fire.
It may be tempting to let the fire burn down on its own while you clean up after your dinner party or get ready for bed, but it is important that you properly put out the fire to avoid potentially dangerous flare-ups or wayward embers.
To put out the fire, let it burn down to the point that most of the wood in the fire bowl has been consumed. Next, spread out the ashes in the fire bowl. Allow the ashes to cool, and then slowly add water throughout the ashes to make sure there are no embers still burning. Continue to add water until steam stops rising from the ashes.
Of course, if you have a propane or natural gas fire pit, you just need to make sure that is properly turned off.
15. Regularly clean your fire pit and accessories.
Fire pit maintenance is integral to safe use, so to get the most out of your fire feature, keep it clean and functioning properly.
The first step in cleaning a wood-burning fire pit is to allow the ashes to completely cool. The next step is removing wood that was not burned or that only burned partially. This can be used again for your next fire. Next, use a brush or broom to sweep the ashes into the center of the fire bowl. Use a metal dustpan to scoop the ashes out of the pit and into a metal ash can until you have a chance to dispose of them.
Some fire bowls have a drain or vents. If yours has these features, remove ashes or other debris that might be clogging them. Use a wire brush and soapy water to clean fire pit accessories, such as your spark screen, grill, and cooking utensils.
If you have a propane or natural gas fire pit, follow the cleaning and maintenance instructions provided by the manufacturer.