Fire Pits: A Popular New Rage or Dangerous Trend?

By: Delores Gempel Lekowski


You see them advertised in newspapers and in gardening and home improvement stores in all shapes, colors and sizes. They are, I have to admit, pretty and would make a cool evening in the backyard very inviting. The vision of family and friends sitting around the fire to roast marshmallows and having friendly conversation is pretty irresistible.

At the risk of drowning the fire of irresistibility here, I have to say that these things scare the heck out of me!

I hate to sound like a broken record when it comes to fire safety, BUT I see a great danger if fire safety is not practiced when using a fire pit, especially with the low-sitting pits that are completely open and do not contain the fire in any way.

I have two stories I would like to share with you:

The first story is about the way fire pits were displayed at a home improvement store I recently visited. The trendy outdoor-living room display was beautiful; it almost made me want to purchase everything. The displays had pretty canvas canopies with couches and rugs sitting underneath. Between the two couches was a coffee table-sized fire pit. It sat very low, about 18" high. Although it looked very nice, I couldn't believe it was sitting under a canvas canopy. I was so bothered that I asked the salesperson if he thought it would be safe to burn one of these under the tent-like structure. He said, "I don't think that would be a good idea." I asked him why it was displayed sitting under the tent structure. He replied, "Well that's just for looks, no one would actually burn one of them under one of these canopies." I don't know about that; to me it looked innocent and non-threatening in that inviting environment, and I know better! I commented that I did not see any warning labels or signs stating, "For display purposes only, do not burn in or under canopy or any cloth covering, danger of fire, burns or carbon monoxide poisoning." He told me he never thought of that. The next time I visited the store, the fire pits were no longer displayed under the canopies./P>

The second story is about my personal experience with a backyard fire pit. I went to visit a friend on a warm day. We spent the day out on her deck; the kids were jumping from the pool at one end of the deck to the hot tub located at the other end. Near the hot tub was a circle of chairs with a square-shaped fire pit in the middle sitting safely on a fireproof/fire-resistant mat. It stood about 20" high. Although it was a hot day, as the evening neared a chill was in the air and my friend piled wood into the pit. As she began to light the wood in the pit, I moved my chair out and away from the circle. The flames shot up and I could feel the heat. I worried as the kids jumped out of the hot tub to join us around the fire. The pit came up to my mid-leg, and on the little ones, it was about hip- height. I worried about them getting too close with the towels wrapped loosely around them or them slipping and falling into the pit and, I hoped the flying ambers would not set the deck or worse, the house, on fire.

I asked my friend if the burning pit made her nervous. She said, "No, we do this all the time," and she commented that I worry too much about fire safety. She was wrong on both counts! I do not worry about fire safety; I worry about fire carelessness. You can never worry too much about being fire safe; it is when you do not worry about it that accidents happen.

I think the higher standing fire pits with a chimney (also known as a chiminea) seem safer as the fire is more enclosed and controlled!

Here are some tips from a fire safety expert on how to properly use a fire pit:

   · Portable fire pits are designed for outdoor use only and should never be used indoors where they would pose a fire danger and could contribute to carbon monoxide poisoning.
   · The fire pit should be set up for use on a solid surface and in an open area away from buildings and overhanging rooflines or trees, and not under a low trellis, canopy or roof over a deck.
   · Make sure to clear all combustibles away from the fire pit such as leaves, dry grass, or pine needles, and keep all patio furniture and other combustible items several feet from the fire pit to avoid fires stemming from radiant heat or hot embers or sparks.
   · Have a working fire extinguisher available as well as a source of water such as a garden hose.
   · Never use your portable fire pit during windy conditions.
   · Make sure the fire screen is in place before using a portable fire pit, and burn only fuels recommended by the manufacturer.
   · Keep fires small to avoid sparks and embers that could fly out, and to avoid damage to screens from prolonged exposure to excessive overheating.
   · Most important, keep children from playing around portable fire pits that could be accidentally tipped over, spilling fire, embers and ash, and never "play" with fire while using a portable fire pit.
   · Do not leave a fire pit unattended and make sure to follow the manufacturer's recommendations for putting the fire out and disposing of the ash.

While these fire pits are indeed inviting, be aware of their dangers: They also invite fires and burns if not used correctly. Enjoy your summer safely!