Open Burning- Philadelphia Insurance Companies

The Dangers of Open Burning and Fire Pits

In September of 2020, a brush fire burned roughly 7,000 acres of land in Montana. The cause was discovered to be a nearby farm's open burn pit used primarily to dispose of livestock carcasses. The burn had occurred weeks before, however; because it had not been extinguished properly, there was still hot material within the pit. The day the fire began, strong winds picked up this material and ignited a fire in a dry grassy area on the farm's property, just beyond the 30 feet of gravel that surrounded the pit. Fueled by the strong winds, the fire jumped a road near the grassy area, igniting neighboring properties.

This danger also exists for other types of controlled fires, such as residential fire pits for entertaining or backyard debris burning. Embers from an improperly extinguished fire pit can blow onto combustible structures, such as a wooden deck, and start a devastating house fire.

Agricultural Burning in Livestock Carcass Management

Many farms use some sort of process to manage unusable livestock. Among them is using open burning pits to dispose of their carcasses. The open burn process has many steps that should be followed to ensure compliance with local, state, and federal EPA regulations. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has created a training module that outlines various procedures to prepare, conduct, and safely extinguish an open burn. Among the various steps include:

  • Consult with the appropriate state regulatory agencies for air-quality and solid waste management requirements on potential sites before initiating carcass management operations
  • Work with the local authorities, including firefighting officials, about the planned open burning. Secure ample fire retardant, equipment, personnel, and gear. Provide the appropriate cleaning, disinfection, space, and personal protective gear
  • Prepare the bed:
    • Build the fire bed in a manner to minimize the amount of sparks, soot, and objectionable odors blowing toward buildings or across public roads
    • Stake out and fence the selected burning site for the fire-bed construction making sure to allow access for equipment needed to maintain the burn
    • Allow a fire-bed length of at least three feet for each adult cattle carcass, five swine carcasses, or five sheep carcasses
    • Lay three rectangular rows of straw or hay bales lengthwise along the line of the fire bed. Rows should be 12 inches apart and each bale should be separated by a 12 inch gap.
  • Have fire-fighting equipment readily available
  • DO NOT burn carcasses with explosive or highly volatile materials, such as gasoline. Consult your fire department or state environmental regulators for acceptable accelerants
  • DO NOT burn carcasses with tires, rubber, plastics, or similar materials
  • DO NOT allow personnel to approach the carcass-burning site from downwind without proper personal protective equipment
  • Dispose of ash in accordance with permit requirements after all carcasses have been burned completely and the fire has been extinguished. Note: It may be several days before the ash is cool enough to be managed without damaging the heavy equipment used to move it

Other Considerations:

  • Conditions after an open burn can be just as dangerous as during the burn, especially when the ash inside the pit can stay hot for days or even weeks. Consider dousing the pit with plenty of water and mixing the ash
  • Use a thermography camera to ensure all hot spots have been extinguished. Thermal cameras range in price from a few thousand dollars to FLIR's FLIR One Pro Smartphone camera which sells for $399.99

Residential or Recreational Burning and Fire Pits

The use of fire pits to burn yard waste is very common, but can also be a source of fire damage to homes and the cause of devastating wildfires. The Smokey Bear website has posted best practices to help individuals complete a safe burn. These practices include:

  • Check the conditions and don't burn when it's windy or when vegetation is very dry
  • Check local regulations in your area, a permit may be required
  • Burn this, not that. You can burn dry, natural vegetation, grown on the property, unless prohibited by local ordinances. Household trash, plastic, or tires are not good to burn and are illegal to burn in some areas. Check your local ordinances
  • Look around. The site should be surrounded by gravel or mineral soil (dirt) at least 10 feet in all directions. Keep the surroundings watered down during the burn and have a shovel close by
  • If you live in a wildland-urban interface (where homes meet wildlands), create a 30-foot zone of fire-resistant space around your home and consider using fire-resistant plants and landscaping
  • Whether it's a requirement in your area or not, always stay with your fire until it is completely out. Drown the fire with water, turn over the ashes with a shovel and drown it again. Repeat several times
  • Check the burn area regularly over the next several days and up to several weeks following the burn, especially if the weather is warm, dry, and windy

For more information on preventing wildfires, visit our Wildfire Prevention blog.

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