What You Need to Know Before Burning Leaves at Home

Learn the rules and risks associated with setting fall foliage refuse afire—as well as eco- and health-conscious alternatives.
6 Things to Know Before Burning Leaves This Fall
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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 of fallen foliage.

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.

Burning Leaves: Why it’s Often Not Worth the Risk

Burning Leaves Why it’s Often Not Worth the Risk
Photo: istockphoto.com

Leaf burning might seem like the most expedient way to clean up the fall lawn, but your local government might feel differently. What’s more, not all people know how to burn leaves, and accidents can happen. The National Park Service says that nearly 85 percent of wildland fires in the U.S. start because of humans, and burning of debris like fallen leaves and trash ranks among the top human errors that cause wildfires.

Is it worth all the risk to your property—not to mention the ozone layer—or could you opt for an alternative method?

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 burning leaves in an exposed heap on the ground, wherein the fire byproducts are released directly into the atmosphere.

Many cities permit closed burning but ban open burning because open burning adds to air pollution and can potentially turn into an uncontainable fire. Areas that allow open leaf burning might 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 dwellings.

Some local laws regarding backyard burning change based on season or take effect only when conditions are ripe for high pollution, wildfire risk, or public health issues. Before burning fallen leaves or any debris, even on a seemingly calm day, individuals should check to see whether those rules to limit smoke or fire are in effect at the time.

It can be a hazard to the environment and to your health.

Although the federal government has no regulations affecting open burning, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) engages states and communities in studying the effects of open burning on the environment. Past studies by the agency have measured emission factors for burning leaves such as particulates, carbon monoxide, and other harmful chemicals and gases that release into the atmosphere.

Particulates are microscopic solids or tiny liquid droplets people inhale. The tiniest particles, naked to the human eye, pose the most breathing risk.

Eco- and health-conscious homeowners, take heed: Burning leaves can unleash particulates, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and plenty more problems into the air. Many add to ground-level ozone (smog) that can damage sensitive ecosystems and negatively impact crops and wildlife within them.

RELATED: 10 Ways You’re Accidentally Poisoning Your Home

The smoke released by leaf 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. This leads to coughing, wheezing, and other respiratory conditions that can sometimes persist.

RELATED: 14 Bad Habits That Could Burn Down Your House

Alternatives to Burning Leaves

Eliminate the harmful byproducts of combustion altogether by removing fallen leaves manually. You might even be able to turn yard waste into a yard helper by mulching or composting leaves instead. Mulching and composting can return important organic matter to the soil, improving lawn and plant health.

With lots of leaves, you have options to divide and conquer without burning. For example, pick up and bag some of the leaves, add some to the compost pile, and mulch the thin layer that remains.

Either leave the mulched leaves in place or move some to serve as mulch in garden beds for the winter.

To get rid of leaves altogether, place them into biodegradable bags and turn them over to your city as part of a leaf pick-up program, add leaves to an outdoor compost bin, or mulch the leaves for use as lawn fertilizer.

Burning Leaves Alternative Mulching Leaves
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Mulching Leaves

Mulching might sound like a lot of work, but it can be as simple as running over thin layers of dropped leaves with a lawn mower. Once the leaves break down to pieces the size of a dime, leaving a thin layer in place serves as beneficial mulch for the lawn and many insects.

Just don’t leave a thick layer, especially of whole leaves. Matted leaves prevent air and sunlight from getting through. If you have lots of leaves, invest in a mulcher; these come as handheld tools, standalone mulchers, and special mower attachments.

Compost Leaves

Composting leaves can take a little more time, especially to see the benefits of your work. If you already have a compost pile, add leaves as part of your balanced composting. Again, breaking leaves down into smaller pieces before adding them speeds up the composting process.

Start a pile of composting leaves in a bin or corner of your yard that gets plenty of sun and drainage. Add some nitrogen-rich matter like grass clippings or food waste to the top and build the pile up to about 3 feet high and 4 feet wide.

Turn the compost monthly to mix the ingredients, and wet it periodically during dry periods. Compost needs a little moisture to decompose. It’s ready to use when it appears dark, like soil, and crumbles.

Chipping Leaves

Some wood chippers include shredding chutes that chop up leaves and other softer yard waste. It works like a leaf mulcher, but as a 2-in-1 tool when paired with a wood chipper. It is not recommended to use a standard wood chipper chute chipping leaves, though. Be sure the chipper has a designated shredding chute.

Burning Leaves Pick Up Leaves
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Pick Up Leaves

If you mulch and compost some leaves, tackle the remaining leaf cleanup fairly easily with a rake and bags. Gather leaves soon after they fall, when they are less crumbly and have more nitrogen to give.

Choose a rake with an ergonomic handle to ease strain and a large tine spread for more efficient sweeps with the rake. A leaf blower can make quicker work of gathering leaves, but gas-powered blowers are not as sustainable as a good old garden rake and a little sweat.

If you’re happy with your city’s pickup and disposal system, bag the leaves and place them on the curb. Some cities offer special leaf or yard waste pickup days monthly or in fall. Check for those dates and to see if your town recycles yard waste into usable mulch for residents.

The easiest way to collect leaves is to rake them onto a tarp and then lift the edges up to “pour” the leaves into the bag. Find biodegradable plastic bags, sturdy paper bags designed for leaf collection, or reusable garden bags, if the local solid waste department allows for their use.

RELATED: 15 Tricks to Know If You Hate Fall Yard Work

If You Absolutely Must Burn, Here are Some Tips

Hopefully, burning leaves is a last resort. If you must burn leaves to get your yard clean, be sure you know how to burn leaves safely. Follow local laws and safety tips like those below.

Use a Burn Barrel

The best way to burn leaves is with a large metal drum. It is a safer, more contained method of leaf burning than a pile. Consider using a burn barrel (available on Amazon from brands like Professional Grade Products). You fill it with leaves and, ideally, secure the burning barrel with a lid to minimize smoke and its associated health risks. Then, ignite to efficiently and quickly incinerate the leaves.

You can make a burn barrel out of a heavy-duty 55-gallon metal drum. Be sure to punch at least 10 to 15 holes large enough to vent air. Adding some drain holes to the bottom of the barrel helps water run out when you dowse the remains.

The safest bet, however, is to use a professionally designed, all-metal burn barrel. Even with a barrel, always have a water source within reach before igniting your leaves.

Burning Leaves Choose a Proper Burning Site
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Choose a Proper Burning Site

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 located at least 50 feet from occupied dwellings; more distance is better.

Burn barrels are safer than open piles. If you choose to burn leaves in a pile, be sure it is no higher or wider than 4 feet. Aim for a minimum vertical clearance (unobstructed space above the fire free from tree branches, power lines, etc.) of at least three times the height of the leaf pile or barrel. Lay bricks or cinder blocks around the perimeter of the patch of leaves and clear an 8-foot to 10-foot wide barrier of bare dirt around the patch to help contain flames.

Never use any type of fire starter or gasoline to begin leaf burning. This can lead to an unmanageable fire. They also emit vapors that can cause an explosion if conditions are just so.

Learn What You Can and Can’t Burn

Typically, municipalities allow burning of leaves, tree branches, and general yard trimmings. Of course, grilling or cooking typically are allowed as well. Fire pits or campfires should not contain any materials coated with stain, paint, or glue.

Do not add any oils, rubber, or treated wood products to leaves when burning. Cities ban burning (and sometimes disposal of) paints, tires, household chemicals, and any petroleum products. Many also ban burning of paper, cardboard, and general home garbage.

Check with Your Local Authorities Before Sparking Up

Despite what your city might allow you to burn, local conditions might restrict when you can burn leaves or other yard waste. Many limit the time of day you can start or add to a burn pile.

Further, cities might implement periodic no-burn times based on drought and fire risk. Some laws also restrict burning because of air pollution. These periods typically fall in summer months, but can vary. Always check local ordinances before burning leaves or any waste. It also can be a good idea to notify the local fire department of your plans in case a neighbor reports smoke.

Even if you live in a rural area lacking municipal rules, your state might have similar regulations. Regardless of what the law allows, never fire up a burn barrel or pile on a windy day. Check local weather to ensure wind speeds are at or predicted at less than 10 miles and hour for the day you plan to burn.

FAQ About Burning Leaves at Home

6 Things to Know Before Burning Leaves This Fall
Photo: istockphoto.com

If you still have questions about burning leaves, check the common questions and their answers below. Or visit the site of state or local agencies for specific information in your area.

Is it OK to burn leaves?

Although it might be legal to burn leaves in many areas, it is not the best idea, especially in urban areas and any region affected by drought. Consider the alternatives to burning, including mulching, composting, or disposing of leaves with your local solid waste department.

What is the best way to burn leaves?

The best way to burn leaves is inside a designated burn barrel like this one on Amazon. If burning leaves in a pile, keep it under 4 feet high and wide, and be sure the area around it is clear of vegetation. Keep a water source and shovel handy at all times while burning. Only burn on calm days and check all local and state ordinances before setting fire to leaves.

Is it safe to burn leaves in a fire pit?

It is not the best idea to burn leaves in a fire pit. First, sitting around the fire just places everyone closer to the contaminants from the smoke. A fire pit screen can stop large embers from escaping, but fire pits usually sit near structures (like your home!) and vegetation, which is unsafe if things get out of hand.

It’s not efficient, either. You can’t dump an entire bag of leaves onto the fire pit without raising dust and putting the fire out. Fire pits are shallower and more open than burn barrels. If you must burn leaves, it is safer to use a burn barrel.

How do you extinguish a leaf fire?

Never leave a fire or even burn barrel until certain the fire is entirely out. Once it’s done burning leaves, drown the fire with water, then stir or turn the ashes with a shovel and drown the pile again.

Keep repeating the process of stirring and watering the pile. And check it several times that day, and in the next few days to look for coals or flare-ups. All it takes is a hot, dry wind to reignite tiny embers.

Final Thoughts

It’s never fun to face that carpet of fallen leaves blanketing the yard, but burning leaves should be a last resort for cleanup. Consider alternatives like mulching or composting, and see what services your city offers to help dispose of leaves.

If burning is your only alternative, learn how to burn leaves safely. Avoid adding to pollution or starting a wildfire.