Burning safety

Safety tips for controlled burns and fire pits

Fire can be both good and bad. Few forces in nature have fire’s destructive power, but handled responsibly, it can be a valuable tool for landowners to use in maintaining their property, and a fire pit can be a cheerful spot on a crisp fall night. By following some basic safety rules, you can help keep your friends, family, and property safe.


Some nights aren’t complete without a blaze in the backyard, enjoyed with family or friends. To help you keep yourself and your guests safe, here are a few safety tips.

  • Follow the code. Locating your fire pit too close to a structure is obviously a bad idea, and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends keeping your fire pit a minimum of 10 feet away from your home. You should also check your town’s ordinances to ensure that local code says your fire pit is an appropriate distance from your home or other structures (or even whether one is allowed at all).
  • Know which way the wind is blowing. If there’s a strong breeze, you might want to reconsider your s’mores session. Windy conditions make it hard to get the fire going, and even if you’re able to get a flame to take hold, the wind can waft sparks into brush, trees, or even onto your house. If there’s a gale blowing, it’s better not to chance it.
  • Be a good neighbor. Once you’ve established that you’re not putting your own house in danger, show a little courtesy to other homeowners in your area. Make sure your fire doesn’t endanger adjacent properties either. You should also be mindful of the effect fire can have on local air quality for neighbors who have health issues.
  • Keep your distance. Don’t forget to keep a buffer zone between you and the fire pit. Modern fabrics can catch fire in a heartbeat, and a second’s inattention can lead to serious injury.
  • Keep it contained. The NFPA recommends using a cover screen on wood-burning fires to keep debris and embers where they belong. Be sure you don’t load your fire pit with more fuel than is safe and never try to speed combustion along with an accelerant, such as gasoline or lighter fluid. There are commercially available fire starters available that use all-natural, kiln-dried components to get your fire started quickly and safely.
  • Use quality fuel, not garbage. Dry, seasoned wood burns hotter and cleaner than green wood, which often creates a lot of smoke. And speaking of smoke, keep plastic, trash, or yard waste away from the flames. Usually burning such debris is against local ordinances, and it can also create toxic fumes.
  • Do not spray or toss aerosol cans into the fire. Since the cans’ contents are under pressure, burning them can cause explosions and serious injuries.


For anyone maintaining a larger property, fire has utility beyond the fire ring. It can be an important tool.

Under proper control in a controlled or prescribed burn, fire can help landowners deal with accumulated dead grasses, brush, branches, and other vegetation that can end up fueling wildfires. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MNDNR), by purposely setting these carefully regulated fires, landowners can actually improve their property and its value. Controlled burns can improve wildlife habitat, boost pasture productivity, and help ecosystems by burning off invasive species, giving fire-resistant native plant communities a chance to re-establish themselves.

Plus, a prescribed burn is far more economical than expensive herbicides that require specialized handling and expensive machinery for application. But a successful controlled burn involves more than a landowner and a gas can. In fact, it’s something that’s better left to trained professionals. Many states have training centers for those who want to learn how to conduct a burn safely. A network of Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges (TREX) facilitate training and information sharing opportunities for landowners that want to work with fire.

Even when everyone involved has the right training and tools, though, a controlled burn has the potential to be dangerous. The NFPA has the following recommendations for open burns.

  • Consider your timing. With controlled burns, each season brings its own risks and benefits. Review your plans with Department of Natural Resources (DNR) staff in your state.
  • Notify local officials. Let the nearest fire company know when and where you plan to have a controlled burn.
  • Keep a watchful eye. Even with a small-scale blaze, have at least one person always watching over the fire until it’s dead.
  • Be ready to put it out. For yard-sized burns, having a garden hose handy, connected to a dependable water supply, is a useful safety precaution. For larger burns it’s smart to bring in the professionals from your local fire department and have them onsite when things kick off.

Sources: bobvila.com; cuttingedgefirewood.com; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The information included here was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance Company and its employees make no guarantee of results and assume no liability in connection with any training, materials, suggestions, or information provided. It is the user’s responsibility to confirm compliance with any applicable local, state, or federal regulations. Information obtained from or via Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance Company should not be used as the basis for legal advice and should be confirmed with alternative sources.

Updated 07/2024