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Fire Pit Safety Tips Everyone Should Know

Roasting marshmallows around the campfire

When you picture your family’s summer plans, do they include sitting around the fire, telling stories, helping the kids roast marshmallows or making s’mores? These are all things that make great summer memories. But fire-related injuries are not the types of memories you want to have when you reflect on summer vacation. 

Whether you have a fire pit in your backyard, or you plan to have a fire while camping or away at the cottage, it’s easy to become complacent to the risks they pose to you and your family.  

Recently, Josh Millsap from Nucor Building Systems shared his SafeStart story with us. A big part of SafeStart is 24/7 learning—meaning off-the-job safety—and story-telling is a great learning tool. Here is his story:

Josh and his family decided to visit their family cabin for a long weekend. Excited for the change in scenery, they filled their first couple of days with a lot of activities, including adventure driving and several long hikes. By the end of day two, everyone was tired and ready to relax.

The kids wanted to roast marshmallows while the adults were ready to settle in by the fire for the evening. The fire pit consisted of a section of cut pipe with four rocks under the bottom of the ring to ensure the fire burned hot.

Josh’s four-year-old son, Angus, crouched down about four feet away from the fire ring to get another marshmallow. As Angus started to get up, he lost his footing—as many four-year-olds do—and landed on his knees right in front of the fire ring. He reached out with his hands to steady himself and the underside of his wrist touched the top outside edge of the fire ring and burned him instantly. He suffered 2nd-degree burns on his wrist and some scratches to his knees.  

In addition to being tired, the adults around the fire became complacent about the risks. Their eyes and mind were not on the activities around the fire and their judgment was impaired enough that they didn’t recognize the children were in the line of fire and had the potential to have a balance, traction, grip error. They quickly learned that the blanket statement, “Be careful, the fire is hot” is not enough to protect the children.

The incident could have been much worse. Angus could have fallen into the fire or hit his head on the edge of the pit and sustained more serious injuries. Since the fire ring was cut from a larger section of pipe, the edges were very jagged—like a serrated knife or saw blade. Angus could have severely cut himself. The closest doctor was more than half an hour away, and any of these serious injuries could have resulted in death without having immediate medical care.

A day after the incident, Josh had time to process what happened and realized that other family members have installed similar fire rings with steel cut from the same pipe that his fire ring came from. He shared the story with those who hadn’t heard what happened to Angus and provided them with the solution of grinding down the edges of the fire ring and applying new fire safety rules for the future.

Thank you to Josh and Nucor Building Systems for sharing this SafeStart story about off-the-job fire safety. It also demonstrates the effective use of learning loops at the end of the story when he changed the system for himself and others. If you want to learn more about these systems, check out our Human Factors Framework webinar. It’s only twenty minutes and is available on-demand for free here

As you think about Josh’s story and how it might apply to your own summer plans, here are some fire pit safety tips:

Before lighting a fire
  1. It’s important to check that there aren’t any burn restrictions or a burn ban in place. Burn restrictions are typically issued by a regulatory body when it’s unsafe to have a fire.
  2. The location of the fire pit is another essential element in fire safety. Fire pits must be at least 10 feet from a house or any outbuildings, property lines and fences. Ensure the fire pit is away from any covered porches, trees, branches, plants or materials that can catch fire. 
  3. The fire pit should be built into the ground using non-flammable materials like concrete, brick or stone. If using a portable fire pit, make sure it is not sitting directly on a wood deck or grass. Piling dirt and non-flammable materials like patio blocks around a firepit will prevent the flames from escaping to the surrounding area. Use a mesh screen to reduce the spread of embers and sparks while still getting a view of the fire.
  4. When preparing to light a fire, always have a way to extinguish the fire nearby. Keep a shovel close to the fire pit as well as a hose or bucket of water to douse the flames. If the appropriate type of fire extinguisher is available, make sure it’s accessible in the event the fire gets out of control and you need to extinguish the flames fast.
  5. Check the wind direction before lighting a fire and be sure to remove anything downwind that’s flammable or could cause the fire to spread outside the fire pit. Especially windy days not only cause problems when trying to light the fire but the sparks can blow to surrounding structures and cause a fire where you least expect it.
Lighting a fire
  1. Do not use flammable fluids (gasoline, kerosene, butane) to light the fire—it could ignite bigger flames than you can responsibly contain.  
  2. Make sure that wood is not painted, coated or pressure-treated, and doesn’t contain glue, as it can release harmful chemicals into the air. Driftwood will also release toxic smoke into the air. Softwoods like pine, cedar, cypress and fir can pop, throw sparks and smoke. Freshly cut wood will also create a lot of smoke and can be hard to light—it needs to go through a drying process first. 
  3. It’s never a good idea to burn things like plastic, rubber, glass bottles, furniture, garbage, yard waste, or magazines because of the toxins and unsafe smoke these fires produce.
  4. When possible, don’t wear flammable or loose-fitting clothing when starting a fire—pay attention to anything that could ignite as you attempt to light a fire. When tending to the fire, make sure sleeves are rolled up, jewelry is secure, and hair is tied back.
Enjoying the fire
  1. Keep children and pets at least 3 feet away from the fire and never leave them unsupervised.
  2. Set a boundary with chairs to ensure people don’t get too close to the fire and do not let anyone move the chairs closer than the perimeter where they were set up. All fire-goers should be seated while enjoying the fire. If someone needs to walk, it should be around the outside of the chairs.
  3. If cooking marshmallows, s’mores, hot dogs or other campfire food ensure safe cooking practices are being followed. This includes putting the food directly into the fire, not waving the stick or cooking utensil around or yanking it out of the fire too quickly.  A flaming marshmallow that was launched from a fire could create a literal line of fire scenario that’s hard to escape.
  4. Fire and alcohol don’t mix—make sure there is a designated person to tend to the fire. Alcohol is also very flammable, so ensure all combustible materials are kept a safe distance from the fire and never throw empty bottles or containers into the fire.

This is not a comprehensive list, but enough to get you started for summer fire safety. Enjoy your time away from work but remember, safety doesn’t stop simply because you’re off the clock. If you’re looking for workplace fire safety tips, click here.


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