6 Things to Know Before Burning Leaves
Learn the rules and risks associated with setting fall foliage refuse afire—as well as eco- and health-conscious alternatives.
Rake, rake, repeat! That activity seems to sum up many homeowners’ autumn weekends, and just when you think you’re off leaf duty for the day, a passing breeze can scatter your piles and shake your trees enough to unleash a whole new carpet to deal with. No wonder the thought of burning leaves is so tempting! Before you set fall foliage en fuego, it’s important to understand the risks, rules, and rewards of the practice—so read on prior to firing up.
1. It might be banned where you live.
Check the fire code for your municipality for any restrictions relevant to starting outdoor fires. Local governments usually distinguish between “closed burning,” which is confined to a structure such as a stove or a chimney, and “open burning,” such as leaf burning in an exposed heap on the ground, wherein the fire by-products are released directly into the atmosphere.
Many cities permit closed burning but ban open burning, which adds to air pollution and can potentially turn into an uncontainable fire. Areas that allow open leaf burning may require you to obtain a permit that only allows fires of a limited size, during certain months, and at a designated location and distance away from other dwellings.
2. It can be a hazard to the environment and to your health.
Eco- and health-conscious homeowners, take heed: Burning leaves unleashes hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide, and carbon monoxide into the air. This troublesome trio creates additional ground-level ozone above the earth’s surface, a toxic gas that can damage sensitive ecosystems and negatively impact crops and wildlife within them.
The smoke released by leaves during burning can also irritate your eyes, nose, and throat, and the carbon monoxide kicked up by burning leaves and remaining embers can, if you receive enough exposure, reduce the amount of oxygen in your blood and lungs, leading to coughing, wheezing, and other respiratory conditions that can sometimes persist in the long-term.
3. Proper burning site selection and preparation is essential.
Most cities restrict burning yard waste to your own private property—so forget about setting the stuff aflame in a woodland, field, or other public space. Plan to burn fallen leaves on a vegetation-free, level patch of dirt no more than four feet by four feet and located at least 50 feet from occupied dwellings. Aim for a minimum vertical clearance (i.e., unobstructed space above the fire free from tree branches, power lines, etc.) of at least three times the height of your leaf pile—which should usually be no more than four feet tall. Lay bricks or cinder blocks around the perimeter of the patch of leaves and clear an 8′- to 10′-wide barrier of bare dirt around the patch to help contain flames.
4. Safe burning techniques can prevent emergencies.
Consult the weather report and plan to burn leaves only when skies are clear and wind speed doesn’t exceed 15 miles per hour. Ensure that leaves are dry—wet foliage burns more slowly and produces more smoke—and have been transferred to the inside of the containing wall.
To ignite, light a small branch with a match and then place it among the leaves to ignite the pile. Never use fire starters or gasoline to ignite leaves—they’re flammable enough to produce a large, unmanageable fire and, in the case of gas, emit vapors that can either cause an explosion or form a trail by which flames can travel from the leaf fire back to the gas can.
Keep a garden hose or a multipurpose fire extinguisher at the ready in case of an emergency, and never leave the fire unattended. When all that remains is embers, douse thoroughly with water from the hose, let the ashes cool, and then either bury the ashes in the soil (it acts as a natural insect repellent) or transfer them to a metal container and store outside for collection.
5. There are safer alternatives to open burning.
For a safer, more contained method of leaf burning, consider using a large metal drum known as a burn barrel (available on Amazon from brands like Professional Grade Products). You fill it with leaves and, ideally, secure with a lid to minimize smoke and its associated health risks, then ignite to efficiently, cleanly, and quickly incinerate the refuse.
Alternatively, eliminate the harmful by-products of combustion altogether by using manual leaf removal techniques. You can put leaves into biodegradable bags and turn them over to your city as part of a leaf pick-up program, add leaves to an outdoor compost pile, or mulch the leaves for use as lawn fertilizer.
6. Burning leaves is easier on your back.
Granted, bagging leaves is backbreaking work (though you’ll have less to collect if you cut your leaf-covered lawn with a mulching blade). Composting leaves is also a time-consuming task, usually requiring you to maintain a ratio of three parts brown matter (carbon-based material) to one part green matter (nitrogen-based material) and regularly turn the contents of the pile with a compost fork to aerate it. Plus, a strong gust of wind could blow away your hard work and force you to repair or rebuild your compost pile.
The beauty of burning leaves is that you can permanently eliminate all the leaves on your lawn in a single fire. So if you follow the rules and stick to safe practices you can start the fire from a comfortable position and then kick back as you supervise the flames.