Best of Jeff Ward: It's Time for Suburbs to Ban All Fire Pits!
Living in a suburban subdivision means the greater good must prevail.
- Editor's Note: Jeff Ward is taking a couple days off. You can read his blog at TheFirstWard.net or simply sit back and enjoy this golden oldie, which originally appeared July 29, 2011, on Geneva Patch and several other area Patch sites. It's the one in which Jeff called for a total ban on fire pits, and the Geneva City Council subsequently went the other direction, choosing to create an ordinance that allows that use. Of course, as we speak, Geneva does have a ban on open burning, due to the drought of 2012, so maybe Jeff was right, after all. As always, add your comments below.
After six-plus years of writing, I’m still confounded by exactly what will set some readers off. For example, I thought the column where I rewrote the Ten Commandments would require me to hire bodyguards, but the actual response was rather muted.
On the flip side, one paragraph of a relatively benign column unintentionally antagonized the entire Elgin Police force so much that I now drive like a saint through that city. And unless you’re masochistic, I would advise against suggesting any improvements to your hometown summer festival.
Even when readers do get going on any particular topic, you can pretty much count on the impassioned responses dying out after a couple of days.
Except when it comes to fire pits.
The column in question was penned by Geneva resident and fire pit owner Colin Campbell on March 7, and the latest reader response came on July 17! I’ve never seen anything like it. Just when you think it’s burning out, there’s another heated response and the subject flares up again (puns intended)!
Given those amazing legs, I decided it was time to delve a bit further into this hot topic. (All right! I’ll stop!) So I called every fire department and/or building department in our Patchland circle to determine the legality of and rules regarding permanent fire pits. Who knew researching a hole in the ground would turn out to be so fascinating?
As an aside, I’m convinced no one actually works for the city of Wheaton—just a series of fictional auto-attendant folks tied to voicemail. It took me 20 minutes to get a real city person on the phone.
Though regulations vary, there are many commonalities between our Patch cities. Where they’re legal, most municipalities require some sort of building permit and specific setbacks from property lines. Thankfully, none of them allow residents to burn garbage, leaves or other yard waste.
Most limit fire-pit fuel to seasoned firewood. Burning construction materials like pressed wood, which contains arsenic, is never a good idea.
I was surprised that only Downers Grove had expressly rendered the pits illegal. Folks there can resort to the portable variety as long as they’re screened in or have a chimney.
With those common caveats, they are allowed in Western Springs, Elmhurst, Burr Ridge, Wheaton, Glen Ellyn, St. Charles and Batavia. You can have one in Hinsdale, too, but it has to be an approved pit. Lisle requires the structure to be above ground for safety reasons.
They’re also technically legal in Geneva and Clarendon Hills but only if you’re using it to cook food and the flame is commensurate with the food you’re cooking. In other words, sticking a marshmallow over your backyard bonfire won’t work.
In fact, it was this Geneva ambiguity that prompted Mr. Campbell’s appearance before the City Council, where he issued a plea for that group to go the way of Batavia by eliminating the cooking constraint. And I really didn’t think much of it until those vitriolic replies to his article just kept coming.
I also asked our Patch cities if the pits were as contentious there as they’ve been here. DG Fire Marshal Mike Gill said the subject does tend to raise folks’ hackles, as did Hinsdale and Lisle. Western Springs and Elmhurst specifically said they haven’t been a problem. The others weren’t sure.
Until now, I’ve recused myself from wading in on this issue because the vestiges of my youthful asthma make inhaling any kind of smoke a lung-clenching affair. When a nearby park district facility performs its spring controlled burns, if the wind’s out of the south my breathing goes the same direction.
So considering that self interest, before providing any final pronouncement I deliberated on this fire pit issue as objectively as possible. Here’s what I came up with!
When we walked out of that primordial forest and built those first structures on the plain, we traded some of our freedoms for that safer social structure. For any fledgling civilization to succeed, its members must regularly be willing to bow to the greater good (unlike our Washington politicians).
For example, we don’t throw discarded mastodon bones into our neighbor’s hut. We try to make our hut conform to the rest of our village. We don’t walk down the main trail naked, and we certainly don’t play the tom toms at full volume all day long.
Though I wish some of our Patch fire-pit responders displayed a bit more tact, they did make some very good points. And the first was that wood smoke, even the seasoned variety, ain’t good for anyone. The logic behind so many local leaf-burning bans is the effect that exhaust has on the exponentially growing number of asthmatic children.
Another valid argument was the wood smoke smell sticks to everything in its path, including vinyl siding. Anyone who’s ever sat downwind of a campfire can attest to that. And repeated fire-pit usage can make that odor permanent.
Is it really fair to subject any unwilling neighbor to that kind of smoke? Does that process significantly differ from inflicting a loud AC/DC marathon upon them? With our current municipal noise ordinances, that one would clearly be illegal.
I know it’s not the same, but you can still use your indoor fireplace, install a non-polluting gas fire pit or move to a more-rural locale where open space eliminates the problem.
Considering the unspoken oath we all took when we moved into our Patch neighborhoods, and the fact that we can’t control where the smoke goes, with all due apologies to Mr. Campbell, proximity makes it time to bid adieu to our ancestral practice of sitting around the fire pit—portable or permanent.