The Fire Pit and the Pendulum—Council Is Right to Examine the Rules for Outdoor Burning

The City Council Committee of the Whole starts discussion to allow fire pits in Geneva.

I wasn't at the City Council Committee of the Whole meeting Monday night because, well, I'm an idiot.

It was the fifth Monday, and I thought I had a night off for a change.

Boy, was I wrong. It turns out, the COW discussed a whole slew of important issues, including the now-infamous fire-pit-regulaton debate.

As you recall from and , there already has been more than a fair amount of commentary on this issue.

At Monday night's meeting, aldermen directed city staff to look into creating an ordinance that would allow fire-pit use in some capacity. They also asked City Administrator Mary McKittrick, Fire Chief Steve Olson and Police Chief Steve Mexin to give them a round-number idea of how much it might cost to enforce a fire-pit law, if that type of burning were to be permitted.

Since I wasn't at the meeting to quote the good citizens who spoke and good aldermen who responded, I'll add just a few tidbits under the heading of news analysis, and maybe opinion.

Before I do that, I should mention that you can read two excellent news accounts from actual professional journalists.

Susan Sarkauskas wrote "Fire lit under council" for the Daily Herald. (I think you can still get past the firewall—the DH announced today that the newspaper is going to subscriber-only access on the Web.)

And Brenda Schory wrote "Geneva opens discussion 
on recreational burning" for the Kane County Chronicle.

Both reporters are terrific, and they give you a great synopsis of the issue as well as what happened at the meeting.

Just so that Geneva Patch can provide something a little different than the rest, here's my take on the issue. I know this steps a few paces away from standard reporting, but maybe it can add to the conversation.

(1) The Fire Pit Genie was let out of the bottle at least five years ago, probably more like a decade. For reasons beyond my understanding, fire pits just seemed to get trendy and popular all of a sudden.

In Geneva, they're in back yards all over the place. Some are metal, some are stone, some are expensive permanent fixtures, some are portable and can be bought at hardware stores.

They're here, and unless we want to get out some bulldozers and a SWAT team, they're not leaving.

(2) Fire-pit burning is illegal, right now.

Which means that there's an enforcement issue that's not being addressed. And one reason it's not enforced, perhaps, is that the law as it's written has some handicaps. Namely ...

(3) Exception No. 4

"Open fires used for cooking food at public or private gatherings provided that such fires are used exclusively for said cooking food and the size of the fire is commensurate to the food being cooked."

So, if the police show up and you've got a marshmallow or a pound of ground round (for a larger fire) standing by, you're obeying the letter of the law.

(4) The problem of outdoor grilling.

I don't think anyone wants to say you can't fire up the old Weber and throw on some burgers and hotdogs on the Fourth of July. So if you want to regulate outdoor fires for cooking versus outdoor fires for warming your tootsies, you need a little more specific information.

Which leads to the conclusions that ...

(5) One way or another, Geneva needs to rewrite Section 307 on open burning.

From a purely practical standpoint, it makes sense to allow fire pits but to regulate them. Require a building permit for standalone structures. Specify when, where and how big a fire can be. The existing Batavia ordinance provides a boilerplate.

Patch columnist should be banned in the suburbs. He points out that civilized humans who live next to each other have to be considerate of each other. That's hard to dispute.

And a lot of people I really like and respect—Steve Olson and Dr. Rodney Nelson among them—make compelling points about fire-safety and health issues.

But I think the City Council is on the right track. This is an old ordinance, and it needs a tune-up. We can do a better job of defining, regulating and enforcing open burning in Geneva.

There's the subjective report. For a reading of the ordinance as it stands—purely objective info—see below.


Section 307 Open Burning 307.1 Open Burning Prohibited.

The burning in open fires of any combustible material, including, but not limiting the generally of the foregoing, automotive or locomotive equipment or parts, industrial wastes, paints, oils, wood and fibers, plastics, paper, garbage, debris, leaves, brush or other refuse within the City shall be prohibited.


1. Fires started and attended by the fire department personnel of the City for purposes of instruction in methods of fire fighting, for research in control of fires, in emergency or other extraordinary circumstances for any purpose determined to be necessary by the fire official.

2. Festive and/or ceremonial burnings with a special permit that has been issued by the fire chief.

3. Fires started for the purpose of burning diseased trees within the city with a special permit that has been issued by the fire chief.

4. Open fires used for cooking food at public or private gatherings provided that such fires are used exclusively for said cooking food and the size of the fire is commensurate to the food being cooked.

5. Fires used for horticultural management purposes to restore or increase the quantity or quality of horticultural maintenance provided that:

a. A permit has been issued by the Illinois environmental protection agency (IEPA) and a copy submitted to the fire chief.

b. All conditions specified in the IEPA permit are followed.

c. The fire official shall be notified not less than twenty four (24) hours prior to the burning.

d. Burning is postponed or suspended when wind conditions are likely to carry smoke and/or airborne particulates into populated areas.

Section 315.2.5, add: 315.2.5 Clearance to Combustibles. Combustible materials shall be maintained no less than thirty-six inches (36”) from heat producing appliances.

Patrick Sennett August 30, 2011 at 11:20 PM
I read Mr Ward's article, and not surprisingly, his argument about the volume of his guitar is quite irrelevant to the firepit issue. Noise is omnidirectional, and the way the Fisher Farms homes are built, you can hear neighbors snoring. Firepits don't cause smoky grief, because smoke rises and most sentient beings only use their firepits when the wind is calm or very gentle. I can recall only one time when my neighbor's firepit smoke was carried toward our open windows, something we were able to accommodate quite easily. Generally speaking, the smoke rises straight up.
John Locke August 31, 2011 at 12:02 AM
That brings up a good point, Patrick. I wonder if the most vehement opponents of fire pits tend to live in the subdivisions with homes built right up to the maximum size allowed on the lot. Maybe the permit for a permanent fire pit should require that it be located a specified distance from the closest neighbor's home.
Betty Collins August 31, 2011 at 05:20 PM
Didn't even know that fires in fire pits were illegal until recently. How many Genevans even knew fires in fire pits were illegal until, possibly, the Fire Dept. showed up & told them? Common courtesy would eliminate problems. If you see that there is a lot of smoke blowing towards a neighbor's house, put the fire out. If you know a neighbor has breathing problems notify them ahead of time that you will be using your fire pit so they can take precautions. In older neighborhoods the homes are pretty close together with small lots. A little common sense & courtesy go a really long way.


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