Whether you know it or not, your fire is spreading. The smoke from your outdoor fire is wafting across your yard and into your neighbors’, too. It’s passing over swing sets and drifting through windows. Problem is, it’s carrying a lot of dangerous chemicals with it.
Outdoor fires are regulated in Allegheny County because they impact our health. So, use this site to learn how to burn safer -- but keep in mind that while you can decrease the impact an outdoor fire has on your health and the health of your neighbors, the safest fire is no fire at all.
All burning firewood produces smoke; unseasoned wood produces the most. That smoke releases a large number of harmful chemicals into the air, such as Benzene, Toluene, Carbon Monoxide, Formaldehyde, Methyl Chloride, Methane and Naphthalene. It also releases fine particles called particulate pollution. These fine particles are absorbed by the body, increasing risks of lung and heart disease, even causing asthma attacks and acute bronchitis. This is especially dangerous for children. After all, their respiratory systems are still developing, they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults, and they tend to be more active outdoors.
Some people have a problem with the smell of wood smoke, but that odor is also a warning sign. If you can smell wood smoke, odds are you’re breathing in many of these harmful compounds.
The air doesn’t carry pollution from smoke away as well as it might seem—most of the harmful pollutants remain near the ground and near you. In fact, pollutants like Benzene and Formaldehyde can hang around at ground level for up to 10 days. That’s why a single fire in one backyard can affect every house in your neighborhood. Allegheny County’s topography makes matters worse; the hills trap the pollutants and intensify their impact.
Smoke and air toxics from wood burning aren’t like industrial sources of pollution. Wood burning isn’t as regulated, there’s no federal oversight, and it occurs right in the neighborhoods where we live—sometimes right next door.
Whether it’s a small fire pit, a bonfire, or a chiminea on the deck, it’s an outdoor fire and what you’re burning matters. Start it with newspaper, dry kindling, or smokeless fire starters. Then add seasoned wood—NEVER unseasoned or treated wood. Why?
Unseasoned wood is fresh cut; half of its weight comes from stored water. When you burn it, most of the fire’s energy goes to evaporating all that liquid, creating a slow-burning, less hot, very smoky fire that produces pollution.
Seasoned wood, has been cut, split and protected from water for at least six months. Only 20% of its total weight is from water, so it’s easy to start, produces more heat and light, and burns cleaner.
To make sure you’re buying the right kind of wood, pick it up. Seasoned wood weighs much less than unseasoned wood of the same size. It’s usually weathered or gray in appearance, with loose bark and little checks or cracks throughout the grain at the ends. Knock two logs together and you’ll hear a hollow sound, a good sign that this wood is seasoned.
Allegheny County has common sense restrictions that make it easy for you to make smart, healthier and more neighborly choices.
For starters: never light a fire using gasoline or kerosene. Save your charcoal for the grill; it can only be used for cooking in a proper device. For fires, only burn seasoned dry wood. Anything else is illegal, including household trash, leaves, coated or painted wood, driftwood, particleboard, moldy wood, plastic, rubber and more.
To be a good neighbor—and avoid a possible fine—comply with outdoor burning regulations. Make sure your fire is no bigger than 3’ wide x 3’ long x 2’ high and is 15 feet or more from your property line. Remember, the smaller the fire, the better.
Open burning is prohibited within Allegheny County on Air Quality Action Days—days when air pollution is expected to be higher than normal. Learn more about the Air Quality Index, an easy way to identify current levels of pollution in your area, and Air Quality Action Days, by visiting AirNow.gov.
And please remember, even the cleanest fire still produces harmful smoke and air toxics. An outdoor fire that meets the ACHD size and placement rules can still be harmful. The severity of the amount of air pollution and odors, the length of time or frequency of open burning, the surrounding hills and valleys, and the weather conditions are all factors that need to be considered before burning.
The only way to completely avoid the harmful effects of wood smoke is simply not to burn.
If your neighbor burns unseasoned wood or trash, or is violating size and distance regulations, there’s a good chance they don’t know the harm they are doing. You can educate them by having them visit this website or giving them an informative brochure.
If that doesn’t work and your neighbor persists in illegal burning, contact the ACHD 24-Hour Complaint line at 412-687-2243 or submit an anonymous complaint online, and we’ll investigate the situation. If necessary, Allegheny County has the authority to enforce regulations and fines.