This helpful post on fire safety is sponsored by We Love Fire.
The first time I ever started a fire outside in the summer, it was a few years after moving in. I had bought one of those inexpensive little fire pits for about $50. I called myself trying to “roast marshmallows,” but it turned out to be an experience that, looking back, could have burned down our house down (or worse) because I didn’t know any better.
My oldest son, age 5 at the time, stood next to me on the patio, while I tried to get this fire going, eagerly waiting for the gooey goodness of roasted marshmallows. I don’t even recall how I got the fire started, but it must not have been safe because what I do remember is how the flames licking the air, very quickly, and nearly as tall as me.
I had a moment of panic as the heat intensified. I remember, though, trying not to freak out for the sake of my son or my husband, who was watching TV on the other side of the windows. Thankfully, the fire started to die down to a more manageable level and we were able to slide a few marshmallows on a stick and enjoy our very first “cook out.”
But let me tell you: I did it all wrong, and I never want anyone to repeat those same mistakes.
What could have been a tragic situation, thankfully, was innocuous. If I had known about fire safety, I could have made a better choice of where and how I started that fire.
Now that summer is near (and at the present time, we’re all “social distancing” ourselves due to the coronavirus), there’s a pretty good chance we’ll be moving outdoors soon to enjoy marshmallows, cookouts (grilling) with immediately family, and camp fires.
So in this post, I’m going to share with you 10 questions that you should ask yourself before you even think of building a fire in your backyard or using a fire pit this spring and summer!
1. Do you have a local ban on outdoor fires?
We’ve all seen the devastating outcomes of raging, out of control fires in Australia and California. (I don’t think I will ever forget that sweet little koala bear that a woman tried to rescue!). We’re living in drier times where it’s not uncommon in the summer to have fire restrictions based on drought conditions. Before you even think of installing an outdoor fire pit or making any kind of outdoor fire, you must find out if there is a local ban on outdoor fires. You can check with your community or county to find out if there are any restrictions.
2. Where are you allowed to install a fire pit?
Guess what a dancing fire can do? Yep--it can spit out sparks that could ignite the grass. If that fire spreads, and your house, fence, or patio is nearby, there is little chance the fire department will get there in time before major damage is done. This is why you must only build a fire pit at least 10 to 15 feet away from any building or structure. (Keep reading Question #4 regarding fire pit screens to help prevent sparks).
But did you know that even 10 to 15 feet may not be enough distance? Here in my county (Montgomery County, Maryland), all fire pits have to be installed at least 20 feet from any building or structure. (So you can understand how irresponsible I was being years ago by starting a fire on my patio…). Twenty feet ensures that there would be less opportunity for property damage and there would be more time for the fire department to get there in the event that a fire broke out.
Also, “any structure” includes your patio and even your fence. So bust out that tape measure and get ta’ measuring! Following the fire safety rules of your county will allow your family to enjoy your fire pit without potentially burning your house (or your neighbor’s house!) down.
3. Do you have a fire extinguisher handy?
This is a question I did not ask myself when I built my fire pit (click here for the tutorial) a couple of years ago.
I have fire extinguishers on all 3 levels of my house, but I didn’t think to have one nearby (i.e. outside) when we are using the fire pit. Whether you’re grilling some veggie burgers or simply enjoying a fire in your fire pit, it’s a good idea to have a fire extinguisher nearby. It’s always better to be safe, remembering that even a small fire can get out of hand.
Next time we roast marshmallows, I’ll be sure to borrow the fire extinguisher from the kitchen to keep at hand.
4. Does your fire pit have a screen?
Many ready-made fire pit kits come with a screen that can be placed on top of the fire (fyi, my fire pit kit didn’t come with one, so I’ll need to pick one up before we start to use the fire pit again this season).
If you live in town, you’ll most likely be required to use a fire pit with a screen. These screens allow for owners with smaller yards to enjoy having an outdoor fire, while having more control over the sparks. For more information on which outdoor fireplace could be the right fit for you, visit www.welovefire.com.
5. Do you know that you should never use gasoline to start a fire?
When starting a fire in your pit, never use gasoline as a starter fluid. Gasoline is highly volatile because the fumes can ignite up to 12 feet away from the source. Also, gasoline could accidentally spill on your clothing, turning you into highly flammable material. Instead, use newspaper or kindling to start your fire. This will allow you to enjoy your fire without possible danger to yourself or others!
6. What will you use to start the fire?
When choosing firewood for your pit, make sure to get seasoned wood that has been dried. Green wood or wood that has just been cut will have high moisture content. This moisture can cause the wood to pop and send sparks into the air (and we’re already talked about what a bad thing sparks can be!). The wind can carry sparks for great distances and out of your control.
You can buy natural aged wood at your local home improvement store and garden centers.
7. Who will watch the fire?
Once you start a fire in your fire pit (or have lit the grill), you should never, ever leave a fire unattended. If you’re like most people, you understand the beauty of a fire is sitting around it with the people you most love and enjoy. So make sure that one of those people is always nearby to keep an eye on the fire. There should be an understanding among every adult that someone should be staying with the fire at all times.
In the event you live alone and want to make your own fire, you still need to make sure you’ve got your eye on it at all times. This could mean making sure that all the food items or materials you need should be within reach near the fire, not left inside. It’s better if there are at least two people enjoying the fire, though. If you need to step away, call a neighbor and ask them to keep an eye on the fire.
8. Do you know how to properly extinguish a fire?
It’s never okay to simply leave a fire burning in a fire pit. You have to thoroughly extinguish the fire. Even if the fire looks like it may be out, it’s always best to pour water on the ashes. But first, separate the ashes apart first. Then, pour water onto the ashes. After you’ve poured the water, stir the ashes with a shovel to make sure there are no embers left.
9. Are you willing to clean up every time?
Many people love to cook on their grill or fire pit. But over time grease from fatty foods can accumulate and catch on fire. So, make sure that you clean your grill or fire pit after you’ve cooked on it.
Grills can be a pain to clean, but I’ve had pretty good success using my steam cleaner with parts of my grill, so that’s something to consider to make cleaning easier than by hand.
10. Do you have kids (or a family member with Alzheimer?)
We’ve got three boys, ages 13, 10, and 8. The last thing we would want is for something to happen to them that could have been prevented. We allow the kids to roast marshmallows over the fire pit, but they have to maintain a safe distance. There’s no leaning over the fire pit, no horse playing, and definitely no leaving them to watch the fire. Make sure that your kids understand the rules before allowing them anywhere near a fire pit, grill, or backyard fireplace.
If you’re a caregiver for an Alzheimer’s family member, be careful with them, as well! They’re often an overlooked population, but some of the same precautions you have to take with kids, you also have to take with them.
Roasting marshmallows, sipping wine around a fire, and just relaxing with the family are all great ways to spend time outdoors this spring and summer. But these 10 questions are pretty important to ask yourself before settling in around a fire.
I’ll admit that even now, after having built my own DIY fire pit and understanding my county code requirements and more, I still learned a lot about fire safety in writing this blog post.
You better believe that before any marshmallows drip down the stick, we’ll be armed with our fire extinguishers! Just in case. 🙂
If you want to learn more about fire safety and how to plan an outdoor fireplace, visit We Love Fire.