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.

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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