Thinking of social distancing around a fire during the coronavirus pandemic? Your city or town might not allow it

Thinking of social distancing around a fire during the coronavirus pandemic? Your city or town might not allow it


Under the state’s new coronavirus “safer at home” advisory — which suggests limiting outings to outdoor activities, and keeping gatherings under 10 people — some residents may turn to backyard fires as an option for maintaining social distance while visiting with friends or family.

But anyone hoping to use a fire pit, chiminea or outdoor fireplace should check in with their local fire department to ensure they are in compliance with state and local regulations, fire officials say.

“Fire pits have become popular in recent years,” said Jennifer Mieth, spokeswoman for the state Fire Marshal’s office. But, Mieth said, unless a fire is used for cooking, it’s subject to the state Department of Environmental Protection’s open burning regulation.

Nearly two-dozen cities and towns throughout the state, including Springfield, Holyoke and Chicopee, prohibit open burning due to population density, the close proximity of buildings and air quality issues.

“In dense urban communities open flames pose a real risk,” Mieth said.

Other communities may regulate, limit or prohibit the use of chimineas, fire pits and outdoor fireplaces, she said.

The law, however, allows for small cooking fires. But that essentially means the fire has to be extinguished once the food is cooked.

But even cooking fires are subject to state regulation if the smoke they produce proves to be a nuisance to neighbors, according to Capt. Richard Martin, fire marshal for the Springfield Fire Department.

If a neighbor calls the fire department to complain about smoke, he said, “you have to extinguish it.”

Meanwhile, some communities around the country have asked residents to stop open burning during the pandemic — either for recreation or to dispose of yard waste — citing the potential impact on those coping with COVID-19, the potentially severe or fatal respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

In Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, officials launched a “Be a Good Neighbor” campaign asking residents not to have recreational fires due to potential health impacts during the pandemic, for people with COVID-19 or other respiratory conditions. The fire department in Aurora, Illinois made a similar request. In a video titled “A Fireside Chat,” Fire Chief Gary Krienitz asked residents not to engage in open burning.

“You might not even know a neighbor five, six houses down might be ill from this and it might irritate and exacerbate their illness,” he said.

‘Just because you can buy it…’

Martin said recreational fires not specifically used for cooking are prohibited in Springfield. The same holds true for Chicopee and Holyoke, fire officials said.

Lt. Katie Collins-Kalbaugh, spokeswoman for the Chicopee Fire Department, said residents sometimes assume that because they can purchase fire pits at retailers within the city, they can fire them up at will.

“Just because you can buy it doesn’t mean the DEP will allow you to use it,” she said.

Collins-Kalbaugh said residents are welcome to call the department if they have questions about the use of fire pits and chimineas. “We hope people will call before they spend the money on something they can’t utilize because of the regulations,” she said.

The Chicopee Fire Department regularly enforces those regulations, especially during the warmer months, Collins-Kalbaugh said.

“Anytime we get calls and our dispatcher says someone is burning we do have to respond and see what’s happening,” she said.

Capt. Kevin Cavagnac, spokesman for the Holyoke Fire Department, said much the same. “We go there, explain the DEP statute and they have to extinguish it,” he said.

Cooking fires, according to the Department of Environmental Protection, must be kept to a reasonable size, located away from non-combustible materials, contained in an enclosure and tended by someone who is 18 years or older. The use of clean dry firewood is recommended to minimize the amount of smoke.

Although West Springfield is one of the 22 communities statewide that prohibits open burning, the city enacted regulations last year to allow for backyard fires, including campfires not contained within enclosures like fire pits or chimineas.

West Springfield Mayor Will Reichelt said numerous requests from residents seeking to have backyard fires prompted the city to clarify the difference between open burning and recreational fires.

“One of the biggest complaints that I’ve had, not really complaints, but inquiries besides like pave my street, fix my sidewalk, cut down my tree then plant a new one, has been why can’t we have fire pits in West Springfield?” Reichelt said in a video posted to his Facebook page outlining the city’s stance on outside recreational fires.

Backyard fires in West Springfield must be no larger than three feet in diameter, cannot be within 25 feet of a building and must be constantly attended. Flammable fluids may not be used to start a fire and burning trash is also prohibited.

Mieth said fire pits fueled by portable 20-pound propane cylinders are essentially treated like gas grills under the regulations. “People should follow the manufacturer’s recommendations, especially for setback distances to buildings and trees,” she said.

Those who store more than 42 pounds of propane need a permit from their local fire department. “So, basically, two 20-pound tanks is OK. Three would require a permit,” she said.

Backyard Recreational Fires

Backyard FiresnnYes, they are allowed so long as you follow some simple safety regulations that you can view in full here: https://ecode360.com/documents/WE1103/public/521951248.pdfnn▪️no burning of trash, leaves, tires, or similar materials (i.e. minimal smoke)nn▪️fires must be constantly attended (obviously)nn▪️must have a water supply for extinguishing available (garden hose or water bucket)nn▪️the fire shall not be located within 25 feet of a structure (because that would be arson)nn▪️if the Fire Department receives a complaint from your neighbors they can instruct you to extinguish the fire (don’t be that guy/girl)nnHave a fun and safe weekend/summer!

Posted by Mayor Will Reichelt on Friday, May 22, 2020

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