Sustainable Sac: Fire Pits

How environmentally responsible is recreational burning?
kids by fire pit

There is a lot of talk about our “emerging” from the pandemic or at least “pivoting” toward post-pandemic life, but many of us are inclined to remain cautious and retain some of our coronavirus-wary behaviors.

Those behaviors include socializing outdoors, not yet in our homes. Which means that our backyards are hosting friends and families, festive evening occasions that call out for a pleasant ambience. What can be more convivial than to gather around the old campfire?

Before you circle the chairs, roast marshmallows, break out the guitar and sing John Denver songs, best make sure that you are going about things legally. The Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District website spells out the basic rules and regulations.

SMAQMD classifies the type of outdoor fire we are talking about as “recreational burning,” as opposed to “open burning” (aka rural yard burning, illegal in most of Sacramento County), “agricultural burning” (crop waste) and “prescribed burning” (e.g., fire-hazard reduction or firefighter training).

In order to have a legal backyard fire, it needs to be contained in “open pits or legal outdoor wood burning appliances, fireplaces and wood stoves.” As for what you can burn, the district specifies seasonal firewood only. Also, if you want to have a backyard fire sometime from Nov. 1 through February, you should consult the district’s Check Before You Burn webpage to see if a ban is in effect that day.

Other things to keep in mind when you have a backyard blaze: It should be at least 15 feet from a house or other structure (garage, shed, etc.) and not be near low-hanging branches. Also, never leave the fire unattended, and thoroughly douse it with water and verify there are absolutely no glowing or smoking embers of any kind when you call it a night.

You also might want to just turn on some twinkle lights and forget the fire altogether, because . . . smoke.


“Although many people enjoy the ambience of an outdoor fire, it’s important to remember that smoke is simply unhealthy to breathe,” says Jamie Arno, spokesperson for Sac Metro Air District. “It is very similar to breathing wildfire smoke, which unfortunately has become a common occurrence and can be unavoidable when fires are burning. Fortunately, by not engaging in recreational burning, you can avoid the risk of breathing harmful pollutants from your own neighborhood.”

Statewide, the California Air Resources Board lists all the materials that it is illegal to set aflame outdoors: petroleum products and petroleum wastes; construction and demolition debris; coated wire; putrescible wastes; tires; tar; tarpaper; non-natural wood waste; processed or treated wood and wood products; metals; motor vehicle bodies and parts; rubber; synthetics; plastics, including plastic film, twine and pipe; fiberglass; Styrofoam; garbage; trash; refuse; rubbish; disposable diapers; ashes; glass; industrial wastes; manufactured products; equipment; instruments; utensils; appliances; furniture; cloth; rags; paper or paper products; cardboard; boxes; crates; excelsior; offal; swill; carcass of a dead animal; manure; human or animal parts or wastes, including blood; and fecal- and food-contaminated material.

Not that you would be tempted to burn anything of the sort while you’re crooning “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”