Safety Rules: CR's Guide to Fire Pits

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Fire pits satisfy a yen for the out of doors—without the hassle of loading up the car, pitching a tent, and potentially facing annoying, post-pandemic crowds. There's something transporting about sitting around a campfire, marshmallow-laden stick in hand, watching the flames dance.

We don't want to toss a wet blanket on your summer fun, but here's a not-so-fun fact: There are at least 5,300 injuries per year related to fire pits or outdoor heaters that send people to the emergency room, according to 2017 data from the Consumer Products Safety Commission. Even kids are at risk. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Burn Care and Research found that those 19 years and younger suffered 10,951 burns related to fire pits between 2006 and 2017.

So whether you gather around a portable fire pit, a built-in fireplace, a chimenea, or a simple hole in the ground ringed with stones, here's how to play it safe while you're working on your s'mores game. Ukulele not required (but definitely recommended).

Pick a Good Spot

To prevent accidental fires, place the pit far from the house, garage, barn, toolshed and other structure that can burn, says Chuck Roydhouse, a veteran career firefighter and president of the Chimney Safety Institute of America.

Also avoid bushes and trees, railing, fencing, awnings, clotheslines, and electrical wires, which are vulnerable to sparks and extreme heat. "The fire's heat dries out everything above it," explains Roydhouse, who has a degree in fire science. "If something becomes dry and brittle enough over time and gets to a certain temperature, it’ll ignite. You don’t even need a spark; the heat alone can ignite it."

The ideal place for a fire pit is in the center of a backyard, at least 20 to 25 feet away from anything, Roydhouse says. “With yards that don’t have that kind of space, keep at least a 10-foot buffer zone around the pit,” he adds.

And don’t forget the weather. Try to avoid a windy spot, and never put a pit on a wood or composite deck. If your fire pit is going directly on the ground, clear the area underneath of all foliage in a circle at least twice the pit’s diameter.

Contain Sparks

Always place a spark screen on top of the pit once you’ve built the fire. Keep a garden hose on hand as well to douse the flames if they get out of control. Never use a bucket of water. “Dumping water on a wood-burning fire forms a hard crust on top of remaining wood, coals, and ash, and causes a lot of water to run off,” Roydhouse says. “As a result, you may not quench the fire completely and still have hot coals burning underneath the crust."

Choose Wood Wisely

Avoid the softest woods like cedar or pine, which tend to smoke and spark, says Leroy Hite, owner of Cutting Edge Firewood in Atlanta. Get hardwoods like ash, hickory, and oak, which burn the longest. Hickory has a strong, classic “campfire” scent while oak is almost odorless. You can also try a wood that’s moderately hard, such as cherry, which has a sweet aroma, or birch, which doesn’t smoke or spark much.

"Make sure the wood is dry—the dryer the better—and make sure it isn't rotten," Hite says. "Best case scenario, the wood was fresh, put into a kiln until it has an internal moisture under 20 percent, and then stored inside until it's delivered." Hite says you can check the wood's moisture by cutting log in half and using a moisture meter.

Toast Like a Master

Skewer marshmallows on the end of a long, fire-safe metal rod or grill fork with a heatproof handle. If all you have is a metal shish kebab skewer, hold it with a pot holder or oven mitt to avoid getting burned. Or go for long wood sticks that are green inside; they’re less likely to ignite. If you're after a golden-brown crust, don’t hold the marshmallow over big flames; they toast better over a low fire or hot coals, according to Campfire, the marshmallow company.

Kill the Embers

To douse the fire, spread out the coals, ash, and unburnt logs in the thinnest layer possible. Then set the garden hose nozzle to a wide-spray or “fog” pattern, says Roydhouse, and spray the pit to lower the temperature and cool the area. Saturate the area until the embers die.

Going Beyond S'mores

You can use a fire pit’s hot embers and grate to cook whole meals, says Sarah Huck, co-author of "Campfire Cookery: Adventuresome Recipes & Other Curiosities for the Great Outdoors." A foil packet is a good starting point. Fill it with cut-up veggies plus a protein, then place it directly over the coals. “Fish, accompanied by thinly sliced potatoes, is great to cook while you’re just sitting around the fire drinking wine,” she says. “The key is to slice things thin to make sure they cook through.”

Tip: One handy tool for campfire cuisine is a Dutch oven. We tell you about them in this article: Why Every Home Cook Needs a Dutch Oven.