Fire pits are currently a popular feature in many backyards, providing warmth as well as ambiance and lighting. But wood burning can be dangerous to individuals who inhale the smoke, and can also result in wildfires that destroy trees, vegetation and homes. Most states, including New Jersey, impose rules and regulations on the use of fire pits.
What Is a Fire Pit?
A fire pit can be any pit built to hold an open fire. However, the term is increasingly used today to refer to metal bowls that can be set up in the back yard as a "gather-round" patio feature. The intention is to allow the residents and their friends to enjoy an outdoor open fire without leaving their property.
A fire pit draws family and friends into the backyard into the cool of the evening for marshmallows, cocktails and conversation. Today's fire pits come in a wide variety of sizes, materials and styles, not to mention price tags.
Many burn wood, while others operate with gas, turning on with the flip of a switch. Some are intended as a lawn feature, and others look great incorporated into a stone patio. State or municipal codes regulate how big a fire pit can be, if a fire pit is permitted at all.
Dangers of Fire Pit Smoke
While many people use indoor wood-burning stoves as a heat source, a new trend is to build fires outdoors in backyard fire pits for recreational reasons. Fire pits are the at-home version of a beach fire or bonfire.
While fire pit fans argue that wood is a renewable energy source, that doesn't mean that wood burning doesn't come with some risks and dangers. In fact, it can impact public health and welfare. Smoke from a wood fire is composed of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles, termed particle pollution, as well as containing toxic air pollutants including:
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Fine Particle Danger to Individuals
But there is a bigger health threat from smoke than ingesting toxic pollutants. In fact, by far the biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles. Fine particulate matter can get into an individual's eyes, causing them to become red and irritated.
The particles can be breathed into the lungs as well, triggering asthma attacks, other breathing issues like bronchitis, and even heart attacks and strokes. Children, teens and seniors are particularly at risk, and those with heart diseases the most vulnerable.
Public Nuisance Issues
Smoke and odor from wood burning can be considered a public nuisance issue. Most people are aware of the global warming problem the planet faces that threatens to disrupt our lives and destroy many species of plants and animals. Smoke and emissions from wood fires contributes to this problem.
Wood-fire smoke emits carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases that contributes to global warming. Additionally, it contains volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, which form ozone during the ozone season.
New Jersey Fire Pit Ordinances
The State of New Jersey regulates fire pits. Applicable rules depend on the type of fuel the pit burns, the size of the fire-pit container, and whether or not the fireplace structure is permanent and approved. Note that open burning of any kind is prohibited on public property in New Jersey, including beaches, beach paths, streets, sidewalks and public recreation areas.
Permanent outdoor fireplace structures are regulated by both local zoning and under New Jersey's Uniform Construction Code (UCC) requirements. In New Jersey, state-licensed, municipally employed code enforcement professionals, such as construction officials, sub-code officials and inspectors, enforce the UCC.
Fire Pit Permits
Any homeowner wishing to install a permanent outdoor fireplace or fire pit will need to apply for and be granted a permit before proceeding. This applies both to fire pits that burn wood and fire pits that are fueled by natural gas.
A fire pit that isn't built as a permanent structure is regulated by the New Jersey Uniform Fire Code. These regulations are enforced by the local township or fire marshal's office.
Uniform Fire Code Rules: Extinguishment
The New Jersey Uniform Fire Code Rules apply to all manner of open burning except fireplaces inside single family dwellings.
Under the Code, Section 307.1.1, open burning is prohibited when it is offensive or objectionable because of smoke emissions and hazardous because of atmospheric conditions or local circumstances.
That means that a fire can be ordered extinguished if a neighbor complains to the fire department about the smoke. It can also be extinguished if weather causes a high risk of spread of fire.
No Appeal Process
In New Jersey, if a law enforcement officer or fire department personnel appear on the scene and order the extinguishment of an open burn in a fire pit, those responsible for the fire must put it out. There is no appeal process. Failure to obey can result in arrest and large fines.
Uniform Fire Code Rules: Placement
The fire code laws in New Jersey (Section 307.4.2) also provide that recreational open fires cannot be located within 25 feet of a structure or within 25 feet of any combustible material. If a recreational fire is built in an approved container, it can be allowed up to 15 feet from a structure.
What is a recreational fire? The code describes it as a fire that burns materials other than rubbish. The fuel being burned in a recreational fire will be in the open, rather than contained in an incinerator, outdoor fireplace, barbecue grill or barbecue pit. The purpose for the fire can be for pleasure, religious ceremony, cooking or warmth.
What is an approved container for a fire pit? The only containers deemed approved for the purposes of this law are those that pass the UCC permit and inspection process. Currently, only BBQ grills are approved containers warranting the 15-foot clearance. All others must be 25 feet away from structures.
Tightening of Restriction New Jersey
New Jersey has been hit with several seasons of drought and destructive forest fires. Authorities can and often do react by cracking down on open fires including those in fire pits.
For example, in 2019, the state suffered from drought conditions, and the New Jersey Forest Fire Service reacted by imposing outdoor fire restrictions on campers, farmers and homeowners. The tougher restrictions covered six counties in the northern region of New Jersey and three counties in southern New Jersey. The rules banned most types of ground fires, including backyard fire pits.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.