Even with a chilly May, fireplace season is just about over. People shouldn’t be burning maple and ash indoors when spring and summer temperatures hit 85 degrees.
Some local residents shouldn’t be burning maple and ash outdoors, either. No matter how popular metal or stone fire containers are for evening parties in the backyard, some fire officials say recreational fires are prohibited in their communities. And they say people should check the laws of their lands to see if recreational fires are permitted.
“We do receive a number of calls on open burning and people may not be aware of the regulations,” said Schenectady Fire Chief Michael Della Rocco.
Under Schenectady’s city code governing fire prevention and protection, open fires are permitted only in gas grills, fireplaces, hibachi grills, Weber cookers or any devices approved by the Fire Department. “It shall be unlawful for any person to kindle, make or keep a fire within or outside of any building in the city unless in an approved fireproof enclosure or receptacle,” the code reads.
In the backyard, they can start charcoal or wood fires in grills — or turn on propane-powered flames — for outdoor cooking purposes. There can be no fires designed with ambience for summer guests or annoyance for summer insects in mind.
Not on the porch
“You can’t have a grill, including a gas grill, on a porch within the city of Schenectady,” Della Rocco added. “We receive a number of calls for smoke and flames visible on the porch of a home. When they arrive, it turns out to be somebody forgot their hot dogs, steak or chicken was on the grill. You can see it can become very dangerous.”
Fires in Schenectady that are just for fun, people in lawn chairs sitting around a fire pit or steel fire cage, are against the law. Even though the cages and heavier “chiminea” outdoor fireplaces are on sale at home improvement, hardware and garden stores, people who light them up in Schenectady could risk a visit from firefighters. Violations one, two and three mean fines of $25, $50 and $75, respectively.
In Schenectady, rules are in the code to prevent stray sparks from blowing into nearby structures. Della Rocco said there are also health concerns. “In the city of Schenectady, where there’s a close population density, houses are close together,” he said. “People have to understand their neighbors may have respiratory issues.”
That’s why people haven’t been burning autumn leaves outdoors in New York for decades.
“It’s a quality-of-life issue,” Della Rocco said. “In Schenectady, we have a good-sized population of senior citizens, some of whom do have respiratory problems.”
With many people keeping windows open during summer months, a neighbor’s fire would mean smoky scents wafting in.
Regulations on open burning are included in New York state’s fire code. Under Section 307, the code reads that open burning and recreational fires are banned if they are determined to be hazardous or offensive; the size of the fire is considered hazardous; or if the fires are located within 15 feet of a structure. Open flames must also be watched until extinguished, according to the state code, and extinguishing equipment and materials must be close by.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has its own rules on open burning. Campfires are allowed, but flames must be less than 3 feet high. The fire area can be 4 feet long and wide. Only small fires are permitted, and only charcoal or clean, dry, untreated and unpainted wood can be used. “As long as it’s clean wood that’s being burned, it wouldn’t be noncompliant with our laws, our regulations,” said Lori Severino, a DEC spokeswoman in Albany. “You can’t burn anything that emits large smoke plumes, so you can’t burn garbage or used papers.”
“As soon as we learn of them through a complaint, we will respond and ask people to put them out,” Della Rocco said of the open burning, noncooking fires. “We will put them out if they are unable to do so or unwilling to do so. It is not an out-of-control problem. The vast majority of people understand and are cooperative. What happens occasionally is we’ll receive a complaint.”
The chief said some students from Union College had an outdoor stove on campus a few years ago and fired it up. Firefighters received complaints, made a campus call and the flames went out. “They made several visits to the fire station with questions, they understood,” Della Rocco said of the collegians. “They went back to the home store, brought a copy of the code and said ‘You sold us this; it’s illegal.’ ”
Peter Bowden, a spokesman for the local chain of Hewitt’s lawn and garden centers, said people can buy portable fireplaces at his company locations.
“We sell a couple,” he said. “You’d think they’d be flying off the shelves as cold as it’s been. I think it was a trend that was more popular maybe three or four years ago, but I see them out there in the box stores, so I know they’re still going out.”
Bowden said a fire in a chiminea, which looks like a small pot-bellied stove, isn’t that much different from a fire in a charcoal grill. “Looking up the laws, apparently that’s how it’s written — if you’re cooking something, it’s OK, if you’re not, it’s not.”
“These chimineas usually can’t hold that much wood,” Bowden added. “Any fire they can make is not going to be huge. I guess the bottom line is, if you’re going to have a fire in your yard, you better have a package of hot dogs out there for when the fire department comes.”
In Niskayuna, if someone complains about a smoky fire in his or her neighborhood, firefighters will visit and douse. But Dale Lingenfelter, chief of Niskayuna’s District 1 Fire Department, said controlled fires in the back yard are generally OK.
“As long as they’re positioned far enough away from the house, they’re [the fires] supposed to be attended and also a means for extinguishment — that means a garden hose — as long as all of those things are in place it’s not an issue unless somebody calls and complains about the smoke,” he said.
“If they’re done appropriately,” he added about the fires, “I don’t see a major hazard on them. They actually have screens on them to arrest sparks.”
In Saratoga Springs, Deputy Fire Chief Peter Shaw said he can’t find any terms in city regulations that prohibit backyard fires. As long as fires are contained, are restricted to a relatively small area and are not creating a nuisance — once again, the smoke-neighbor factor — people can burn clean wood in their yards. Firefighters won’t endorse people who have dug out circular pits in their yards, lined them with bricks and started bonfires. “Something that has big, tall flames is going to get us there very quick,” Shaw said.
In Albany, the city’s code — chapter 197, section 5 — also gives supervised, contained fires a green light.
“No person shall kindle, make or keep a fire in any yard or building in the City unless in a wire, steel, concrete, brick or other fireproof enclosure or receptacle,” the section reads. “A fire so kindled, built or maintained, as aforesaid, on the outside of any building shall be continuously under the care and direction of a competent adult from the time it is kindled until it is extinguished.”
Burning must take place at least 25 feet from any wood structure, and 10 feet away from any type of structure.
In Scotia, people can start outdoor fires in barbecue or gas grills for cooking. Nothing more.
“It’s considered open burning,” said village Fire Chief Charles Keller. “If you can’t put a hot dog or a hamburger next to it, our law specifically says the only thing you can cook on would be briquettes or a propane barbecue grill. Any of these chimineas or wood-burning things are open burning.”
Like other chiefs, Keller said the burning issue is not a major problem. It can be an occasional one.
“We’ve seen the guy who has like a $2,000 fire pit in his backyard, brick and all, sitting there at 2 in the morning having a couple beers,” Keller said. “Your neighbor calls, you have to put it out.”
He knows people can buy fire containers at nearby stores. He wishes stores were also selling a little information.
“You can go to Walmart in Glenville and buy them,” he said. “Why isn’t there a notice up that says ‘Check with your local fire department before you buy it?’ ”