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 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 .

The 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.

Jeff Ward August 14, 2011 at 05:24 PM
Jeff, The portable version are legal in DG. It's the permanent ones that aren't. Jeff
William Vollrath August 14, 2011 at 05:44 PM
When I earlier suggested it is not much of a logical leap from banning fire pits to banning indoor fire places, little did I know it would take only a few postings before they also became a target of those apparently wishing to control all behavior which can be deemed harmful and dangerous to anyone in the vicinity.
Jeffrey Crane August 14, 2011 at 08:14 PM
I called the village last week and ask specifically about in ground or patio fire pits and was told that you can install them. They mentioned nothing about any type of pit being illegal. It is possible that the person I talked to was misinformed, but she was part of planning department staff. Can you link me to the ordinance that mentions this? Also I am confused as to why a portable pit would be allowed, but not a permanent one. Don't they both breath fire and smoke? :) At least with a permanent pit, all setbacks would always be adhered to and less imposing on neighbors. www.dggab.com
DuPage County Resident August 14, 2011 at 08:29 PM
Thank you, Mr. Vollrath for your rather insensitive remark. If only you could live a day in our shoes. It is obvious that you have not spent anytime looking into the adverse health effects of wood smoke, even though several women commenting on this article have provided you with some excellent resources. Look…if a burner could surround them self in a glass box, on their own property, then we as neighbors would not have to be the bearer of unbidden toxic wood smoke and there wouldn’t even be an issue. Unfortunately, this is not the reality. We will be making the effort to supply Jeff Ward with a few pertinent scientific articles and reports. There are literally thousands that are available. I suggest you start reading. Then, perhaps you could comment more intelligently and contribute to a real solution instead of merely spouting big government banter.
Vicki Morell August 14, 2011 at 08:51 PM
What about kids not able to breathe clean air in their own home, yard or neighbourhood? Studies show that people who heat their homes with wood have more respiratory problems than those that don't. Smoke particles also invade neighbouring homes. Research shows that children in wood burning neighbourhoods are more likely to have lung breathing problems. (from Focus on wood Smoke Pollution - Washington of Ecology)
Jeff Ward August 14, 2011 at 08:53 PM
Jeff, I talked to Fire Marshall Mike Gill who told me you cannot have an in ground fire pit in DG! I suppose he could be wrong, but I think someone gave you incorrect information. Please call him, he's a really nice guy. I had a hard copy of the ordinance, but recycled it because the column has already run! I'm guessing the smaller ones are allowed because they have nowhere near the capacity of the in ground version. When my neighbors use their portable pit, I barely notice. When the other ones use their in ground pit it's pretty powerful. Jeff
Vicki Morell August 14, 2011 at 09:00 PM
As long as any wood burning appliances are legal you can do all the research you want before you move anywhere and then one day you can be on the other side of the toxic emissions coming from your neighbour's wood smoke trespassing and polluting the only air you have to breathe.
William Vollrath August 14, 2011 at 09:36 PM
You don't understand my point. Neighbors should respect the health and other needs of each other to a reasonable degree. However, life is dangerous to one's health. I don't think legislating intelligent behavior should be our primary response to every undesirable behavior whether it involves fire pits, fireplaces, pets, children or any of the other normal challenges that arrise in life...
William Vollrath August 14, 2011 at 09:52 PM
I would further note that just because there are a handful of neighbors lacking the maturity to agree on respectful use of fire pits doesn't mean Council needs to pass rules that advesely affect the other 50,000 citizens who don't have this problem. I don't even have a fire pit, but if I did, I certainly wouldn't need Village statutes to tell me how to use it responsibly.
DuPage County Resident August 15, 2011 at 02:12 AM
We think you are giving human nature and the expectation for individuals to behave in a judicious manner too much credit. After all, we are descendants of the cave man, with an insatiable desire to burn, built directly into our DNA. Unfortunately, cavemen lived relatively short lives. Sure, maybe their demise was due to the saber tooth tiger, or difficulty finding food, perhaps it was disease,(no health care back then), or maybe, just maybe…it was all that wood smoke! Today, we are fortunate to live in a more sophisticated and advanced world. We now know through scientific evidence that even low levels of wood smoke exposure can be detrimental to human health, in particular to infants and young children. Dioxin, one of the most toxic substances known to mankind is a major component in wood smoke. According to the U.S. National Toxicology Program, there is no safe level of dioxin exposure. If someone wishes to impact the health of their own family by burning in close quarters, that is their own unfortunate choice, but to inflict harm and discomfort to a neighbor(s), is in our view, an unspeakable choice. May we also remind you, that recreational wood burning is becoming an epidemic spreading across the country due to increased outdoor living popularity. Residential wood burning now accounts for more than 30% of the black carbon particulate pollution in the U.S. today and that number continues to rise.
William Vollrath August 15, 2011 at 03:11 AM
Be sure to also strictly regulate use of pesticides, herbicides and unshoveled sidewalks in winter...
William Vollrath August 15, 2011 at 02:51 PM
From Wikipedia, "The most concentrated particulate matter pollution tends to be in densely populated metropolitan areas in developing countries. The primary cause is the burning of fossil fuels by transportation and industrial sources." I suggest your worry less about the relatively insignificant pollution from the few fire pits in DuPage county, and instead focus on the significant problem caused by trains, cars, mowers, etc. Also, I think you are suggesting misinformation on current DG law. I believe open ground fires are not allowed, but recreational fires contained above ground are. If that isn't the case, please site the relevant statute, otherwise stop saying fire pits are illegal.
William Vollrath August 15, 2011 at 04:04 PM
And by "fire pits" I mean the commercially built metal, clay or brick fire burning containers popular for decks and patios.
Raphael August 15, 2011 at 05:49 PM
I love the arguments of endangering the lives of your neighbors from the smoke. if you are that sensitive to smoke you shoudl not be outside because I can guarantee you that you will be breathing in far more harmful chemicals that what is given off by a couple logs. Perhaps you should move to California.
Terry May 03, 2012 at 02:51 AM
Where do you sit when you use the fire pit? I bet its upwind and not in the smoke that is going into your neighbor's house. I don't appreciate the stink from the smoke and it doesn't disappear when your fire goes out. If you can smell it, it is in your body. How much pollution will you inflict on your neighbors?
mmazzi May 14, 2012 at 04:17 AM
Nobody said asthma is on the rise BECAUSE of firepits! The article states that: "The logic behind so many local leaf-burning bans is the effect that exhaust has on the exponentially growing number of asthmatic children." All you folks can bring up these examples of lemonaide stands, loud music, or snow shoveled into the street. None of those things will give me respiratory problems or cancer. I live in the city, and someone is burning something in their yard on the other side of the alley). We first smelled it in our bedroom. We had the back door open and the smoke had to make a U-turn to reach us. I walked down the alley because I actually thought somebody's house was on fire. Since our block has all two-flats and very large buildings at each end, this smoke that's been smoldering for over an hour has affected probably 100 households! My brother lives in Will County and has an indoor fireplace and a fire pit. I have never smelled like this after one of his fires. I don't know what my neighbors are burning, but the idiots are probably burning something other (more toxic) than seasoned wood. My throat feels like when I was a kid and watched a house fire. Toxic. My hair smells more toxic. Regardless, even seasoned wood has carcinogens: http://www.fairwarning.org/2010/06/natural-yes-but-wood-smoke-is-toxic-too/ The more we evolve the more we learn what's dangerous. Also, big diff between smoke billowing from a ground-level smoke pit or a 2nd story chimney!
thefunkychicken May 14, 2012 at 11:54 AM
What a bunch a crap.
getreal June 15, 2012 at 09:54 PM
Yeah, what gives someone the right to think they can crap into the air whenever they want and make other people breathe it? Listen, anyone who has a need to play campfire more than once or twice a season should move to the mountains where they can live out their fantasies, they should get the hell out of the suburbs where people like to breathe clean air.
Ralph Mieszala August 01, 2012 at 03:19 PM
They ought to put a ban on people who want to ban stuff......
Duff Marley September 05, 2012 at 10:06 AM
How about being courteous to your neighbours by using your god-given brain and not lighting a campfire in an urban neighboorhood in the first place! One "neighbour" enjoying the "fun" of his "open fire" means 50 other neighbours enjoying the "fun" of the resulting soot on their properties, in their homes, and in their lungs!! Wake up!
Duff Marley September 05, 2012 at 10:15 AM
The way to "use a firepit properly" is at the cottage, the campsite, or on ten acres of land in the countryside where you're not bothering hundreds of other people and making them sick. Ten years ago this activity was totally unheard of - no-one would be stupid or selfish enough to start a campfire in an urban neighbourhood, until someone figured out it was yet another way to make money of gullible people at the expense of their health.
Duff Marley September 05, 2012 at 10:21 AM
Very well said! And I will add that "recreational fire" is indeed part of American culture, IN DEDICATED RECREATIONAL AREAS - where it belongs, not in crowded urban neighbourhoods. In that way, people can choose whether they wish to participate, not be forced to endure other people's soot on their properties, in their homes, and in their lungs.
Duff Marley September 05, 2012 at 10:26 AM
Rights and Freedoms do not replace common sense and courtesy. You have no more right to pollute my home and property with frivolous wood smoke than I have to defecate on your front lawn. No-one wants to ban humanity. Just selfishness and stupidity.
Duff Marley September 05, 2012 at 10:39 AM
No, the problem is that the soot from your frivolous, selfish activity is leaving your property and entering other people's property, homes, and lungs, whether they want it or not. Anyone who lights a campfire in an urban neighbourhood isn't a "neighbour" at all, just obnoxious!
Duff Marley September 05, 2012 at 02:43 PM
Oh, you mean *your* kids love it, or the kids down the block who've woken up with a strep throat because some selfish "neighbour" decided he needed to have a campfire in the middle of an urban neighbourhood. I guess the folks on the home improvement show that sold you on your "outdoor living room" didn't mention that giant mental leap, huh?
Brett September 06, 2012 at 01:09 AM
Well...looks like it's time to go out in the back yard and burn some more roofing shingles in honor of my hero Jeffrey Ward
Duff Marley September 09, 2012 at 12:53 AM
Hopefully before burning, people will take the time to consider that the soot from their frivolous activity is leaving their property and entering other people's property, homes, and lungs, whether they want it or not. Anyone who lights a campfire in an urban neighbourhood isn't a "neighbour" at all, just selfish and obnoxious, and deserves to be treated as such by government, not coddled. Ten years ago this bloody nonsense was virtually unheard of and now it's an epidemic of rampant stupidity. Who is benefitting from this? Follow the money folks! Of course we have retailers involved, from the firewood, the smokepots themselves, and the vendors of accessories for your "outdoor living room". And there's the drug companies who are more than happy to see you and your family sick. And not to be left out, we have the fire departments burying "nuisance smoke" calls in their response statistics while the boys enjoy those lucrative callouts to your neighbour's chiminea. We mustn't leave out our "real estate professionals"; no gushing saccarine property description is complete without the prerequisite glorified smudgepot in the backyard, is it? And last of all, we have incompetent, lazy politicians who are quite happy to do nothing and let the neighbours fight amongst themselves.
Laura Keyes November 19, 2012 at 04:23 PM
@ Duff Marley. Nonsense. We have had a fire pit in the neighborhood for well over 30 years and it is not anything I intend on stopping. We do not use it frequently, we do it with consideration and have never had a problem. This activity was NOT unheard of 10 years ago. Your being unaware of something does not negate its existence.
Laura Keyes November 19, 2012 at 04:39 PM
Melanie C...I read your post and the question at the end...Apparently it WILL kill Elaine Lane to give up a night so your kids can enjoy a special treat and you can enjoy the memory of it. What sort of human being is this. Truly self centered and uncaring to others...Unless of course you are doing this a lot (which I doubt) I really do not see how the occasional firepit evening could not be accommodated. Especially if done on a night with low wind. Poor people... who do they shake their fist at when nature blasts them?
Laura Keyes November 19, 2012 at 04:50 PM
Awesome way to point out the hypocrisy! It is something the folks should be attending to instead of the local issue of fire pits. People need to educate themselves on what really is a priority to be fixed. There is a oil refinery in Lockport highly visible from Romeoville as well I wonder what the constant burning flame there and the other residual pollution is? A good wind makes that a local enough issue as far as air quality goes. Better yet how about all the flight traffic overhead...not all of the is high enough for the streams to carry it away...Oh to where?..Someone is affected and you betcha that we have polluting particles in our air that have absolutely nothing to do with the neighbor roasting a weenie or warming up to a fire one evening with friends.


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