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What You Should Know Before You Smoke Out The Neighbors

"Fire Pit" by Rich Bowen is licensed under CC

When the weather turns balmy and the sun goes down, there’s nothing like the coziness of a backyard fire. At least that’s how some people see it. But if your neighbors don’t agree, the law is on their side. 

Small backyard fires for roasting marshmallows and hot dogs are probably legal where you live — as long as there’s not a burn ban — but authorities say there’s a lot to consider first.  Not the least of which is etiquette, and even your neighbors’ health.  

Gary English, assistant fire marshal for the city of Seattle, says this is the time of year the Seattle Fire Department starts getting calls from people who are smoked out by their neighbors – especially when the weather is nice and the windows are open. 

“And that gets into the discussion about hazardous situations where smoke is actually, potentially harming the individuals in a neighboring house. So, in those kinds of conditions, it becomes a neighborhood discussion. If necessary, we can respond and deal with the situation, but when we do that, we’re kind of taking ourselves out of the area where we want to be positioned in case we have a larger fire.”

English says according to Washington state law, if you’re bothered by the smoke for any reason, your neighbor has to put the fire out. But he recommends taking a gentle tack the first time around – some people aren’t aware the fine particles in smoke aggravate asthma.  In some people, they can even lead to stroke.

“We hear from people every day who have asthma, who have heart conditions, who are worried about the effects of very fine particle pollution which comes from wood smoke, and they have a right to be able to be in their backyard and enjoy it, and not get smoked out by people who want something and it really isn’t necessary.” said Joanne Todd of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

If you choose to burn a backyard fire, here are some steps you can take to stay safe:

  • Fires should be at least 25 feet from any structure.
  • Keep it small – no more than the size of a small tire in diameter -- and don't let the flames shoot up higher than two feet.
  • Burn only firewood or charcoal, and don’t be tempted to throw any pressure-treated or painted wood, yard waste or paper plates in the blaze -- some materials like these can put off toxic fumes or dense, smelly smoke.
  • Check with your local fire department and the local clean air agency for additional restrictions, and monitor your area for burn bans. 
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