Small home dwellers face particularly important concerns when entertaining around a backyard fireplace. If you have a small yard or a little terrace, you need to be especially mindful of placement and other safety factors. And even if you have lots of outdoor space, you might also have nearby wooden structures, large trees with overhanging branches, or dry leaves that—for some reason, hmm—are still everywhere in piles instead of being in that compost bin.
I absolutely LOVE the charm of a nice fire even when I don’t have guests over. And I’m grateful that in the 20-plus years I’ve enjoyed outdoor fireplaces, I have never had one go out of control.
So I thought I’d share with you some safety tips and and a few helpful resources. Maybe you’ve just purchased your first fire pit. Or maybe it’s been a while since you’ve had the time and space to enjoy a backyard fire. But as we approach the “outdoor season,” it’s a good time to review some simple practices that are easy to overlook when we’re busy entertaining—or lulled to sleep by the fire.
Table of Contents
One of the most important tips I can offer is to make sure that you have enough clearance around your fire pit. Always set up your fireplace in a open area, not under a covered deck or patio. Or even near a roof overhang, for that matter.
Make sure that overhanging tree branches are at least 15 feet from the fire. Rake away dry leaves, and pine and cypress needles. And continue to rake before each fire you build if, like me, you have trees that drop leaves, catkins, and acorns year round. Or squirrels that enjoy “gifting” you from above with those leafy, young shoots they love to gnaw off during nest-building season. Enough already with the silly surprises, OK?
If it’s breezy outside, make sure there aren’t loose papers and debris in the yard or atop open recycle bins. Note the direction of the wind before lighting a fire or setting up seating around the fire pit. A gentle fire will—without ANY warning—become a roaring blaze when whipped up by a sudden gust of wind or even strong, steady breezes. So make certain that your seating isn’t too close, especially when using an open pit.
If you’re burning wood, use a good spark screen that’s designed to fit your fireplace—this is especially important under windy conditions. If it has become mangled or sections are missing, it’s time for a new screen.
More on fire screens later.
But this is probably a good time to answer that wood deck question. The answer is no. I would never set up a wood-burning fire pit on a wood deck. There are companies that sell fire resistant deck protectors for use with chimineas. Contact a couple and see what they say, but in my mind, the risk is simply not worth it.
Keep a water hose handy. I always unroll my garden hose, turn on the spigot, keep the nozzle in the “off” position and stash it near the fire. And one of these days, I’m going to have a plumber run a water line and install a spigot in that area.
Consider buying a portable fire extinguisher and keeping it handy. Get a good one, and have it checked annually by a professional. It can prevent so much heartache, injury, and damage to property. A big bucket of sand mixed with baking soda will also extinguish a fire pit that is getting out of hand.
Think about what you’re wearing. Nylon and polyester are highly flammable materials. Big, billowy sleeves and long shirttails are potential problems, too. Get a pair of fireproof grill gloves or barbecue gloves. They’re inexpensive, widely available, and could save your skin.
Better, Not Bigger
You don’t have to build a huge fire to produce abundant radiant heat (and beauty), so don’t overload your fireplace with too many logs, as tempting as it might be. You’ll be quite unpleasantly surprised by how quickly over-stacked logs can burn out of control. And you definitely don’t want fire shooting out of your chiminea’s flue, as “AWESOME!” as you might think it looks at first. Pace yourself, instead.
Fueling the Fire
I recommend burning only hardwoods in a terracotta fireplace, or pressed logs that do not contain waxes or resins. Hardwoods like hickory will burn more slowly than soft woods like pine.
Manufactured logs or charcoal can burn safely in a cast iron or cast aluminum fireplace, but always use caution. Never use accelerants like lighter fluid, gasoline, alcohol, etc.
Never burn garbage, debris, or dry leaves—it produces thick, irritating smoke that neither your neighbors nor your guests will appreciate. And again, you never want to see flames shooting out of the top of the flue.
Be Mindful of Children and Pets Around a Fire
Be especially mindful of children and pets around a fire, making sure that they are safe and protected from their own curiosity and innocence. Fire implements, pokers, and screens left on the ground could be stepped on if not easily seen. Store matches and lighters out of children’s sight. And somewhere that they can’t reach. Keep a close eye on what’s going on.
Keep a first aid kit handy. I keep one in our workshop because it’s close by and the temperature in there is always cool enough for proper storage. A minor burn can be treated at home. The first thing you should do is run cool—not cold—water on the skin for 20 minutes. Ice is not recommended. Then wash the area with a very mild soap and cool water. Dress the burn with an antibiotic cream and a non-fuzzy covering. You can even use something like Saran Wrap. For minor pain, OTCs like Advil or Aleve can be used; make sure to read the label thoroughly for proper dosages and warnings.
Anything more than just a minor burn will absolutely require professional medical treatment, and possibly emergency medical treatment at a hospital. Please refer to this article at HealthLine for more information. It’s clear and concise and will help you determine how to proceed.
You need a fire screen. Some fire pits and fireplaces come with one. If it breaks or falls off its hinges, begins to disintegrate, or otherwise becomes non-functional, get another one and pronto. If necessary, email or call the manufacturer. Or Chat with them on their website.
If you can’t replace it for some reason, and you don’t want to buy a new fireplace, see if a professional metal worker or artisan can make one for you. I’ve seen these spark screens at garden shows—they drape around the neck of a clay chiminea with a chain that has a convex piece of metal mesh attached to it. It’s like a necklace for your chiminea. Maybe you’re talented enough to make one yourself? But if you’re burning wood, the fire will spew sparks when you’re least expecting it, so you should have a screen to be safe.
Fools and Fire Don’t Mix
Who doesn’t enjoy a glass of wine or tasty home brew ’round the fire? With a recent spring cool spell, we’re on an Irish whiskey spree. But we all know at least one knucklehead who doesn’t understand the limits of social drinking, and becomes downright dangerous when mixed with fire. And don’t you just hate it when they actually show up at your party?
The best thing is just to extinguish the fire right then and there—dealing with said knucklehead as needed—and start another fire later, if you can. But this is certainly preferable to having a potential disaster on your hands. And here’s to having many knucklehead-less parties in the future!
When the Day is Done
Every candle I buy these days comes with an annoying label reminding me to “never leave a candle unattended.” As though I don’t know. So I don’t need to tell you this about an outdoor fireplace. Still, it’s easy to run off to take a phone call in the house (yes, I still have a land line—in case the iCloud bursts) or to be distracted by a neighbor who wants to borrow your super-jumbo lasagna pan.
So I’m going to remind you anyway. Always, ALWAYS check that fire. Check on whoever’s outside while the fire is still burning. And always extinguish the fire completely before heading inside for the night.
I not only extinguish my fire with sand, and make sure the spark screen is in place, I also douse the ground around the fireplace with the water hose before turning in for the evening.
Serious damage to health and property can be avoided with routine practices and preparation—and by staying sensible and keeping a watchful eye on things. Here’s a quick takeaway for the safe enjoyment of your outdoor fireplace this season.
- CLEARANCE is crucial. Make sure you have adequate clearance around your fire. Rake the ground around your fireplace before building a fire, clearing away leaves, pine needles and debris. Don’t neglect to determine clearances overhead, as well. A minimum of 15 feet from overhead structures and tree limbs is a good rule of thumb. More is better.
- BREEZY CONDITIONS can transform your gentle fire into a raging inferno before you know it. And can make the need for a proper spark screen all the more important. I don’t recommend placing a wood-burning fire pit on wood deck. But if you’d like to use your deck, contact the manufacturer of a fire resistant deck protector and put your questions to them. Maybe they can help you decide.
- ANTICIPATE PROBLEMS so you don’t have to apologize for them instead. Keep a water hose, fire extinguisher, or big bucket of sand handy. Consider whether your clothing is loose and flyaway, or made of a highly flammable material like nylon or polyester.
- BIGGER is not necessarily better. Manage your fire sensibly, and don’t over-stack your logs. If there are flames shooting out of the flue of your chiminea, you’ve gone way too far.
- FUELING your fire properly can make the most of your enjoyment and safety. Burn hardwoods in a clay fireplace, or pressed logs that do not contain waxes or resins. Hardwoods like hickory will burn more slowly than soft woods like pine. Manufactured logs or charcoal can burn safely in a cast iron or cast aluminum fireplace, but always use caution. Never use accelerants like lighter fluid, gasoline, or alcohol—it’s dangerous. Never burn garbage, debris, or dry leaves—it creates thick, irritating smoke. And LOTS of it.
- BE MINDFUL OF CHILDREN AND PETS around a fire. Keep a watchful eye on them to make sure they are safe and protected from their own curiosity and innocence.
- FIRST AID for a minor burn can be administered at home. Run cool—not cold—water on the skin for 20 minutes. Ice is not recommended. Wash the area with a very mild soap and cool water. Dress the burn with an antibiotic cream and a non-fuzzy covering or Saran Wrap. Anything more than a minor burn requires prompt, professional medical attention. Refer to this article at HealthLine for further information.
- FIRE SCREENS are important to fire safety. If yours breaks, act quickly to replace it. If the manufacturer of the fireplace can’t help you, and you don’t want to buy a new fireplace, you might be able to locate a metal artisan at a craft fair or garden show who can make one for you. It’s worth a shot.
- FOOLS AND FIRE don’t mix. If you can’t banish that buffoon who over-imbibed and knocked over your blazing chiminea last Memorial Day, then be sure to extinguish the flames as soon as you hear their car door slam in the driveway.
- WHEN THE DAY IS DONE and you’re heading inside for the night, be sure to completely extinguish your fire and put the fire screen in place. I also douse the ground around the fireplace with the hose—just in case.
If it’s your fire, it’s your responsibility.
Now, go outside and enjoy the evening!
How to build a top-down burn (this works for outdoor fireplaces, too).