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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Light 'Em Up -- Fire Pits Within Portsmouth City Limits

By now, I guess everyone but me was aware that fire pits are allowed within the city limits of Portsmouth. I have now seen the ordinance granting this privilege and all the stipulations that must be met for burning a fire pit. I must say, I am bothered by the present policy. Let me address certain concerns I have about fire pits in town.

I will not get into the actual language of the code in this blog entry. However, after experiencing four fire pit fires next door in one week, I do have some questions about the safety and liability of fire pits. Perhaps, the ordinance should be reviewed and even reconsidered.

I understand fire pits have become very popular lately. They can be a source of warmth and joy for parties, intimate gatherings and simple marshmallow roasts. However, fire pits are wrought with dangers, and to ensure the safety of everyone, certain measures must be taken. And, even then, questions about additional hazards loom.

The City

Structures and flammable objects tend to be much closer in proximity within the city than in rural settings. Simply put, sparks and flames from open fires may cause fires on properties adjacent to fire pits. Roofs are particularly vulnerable to fire from sparks and smoke damage.

Should Portsmouth consider filing a permit for use of a fire pit? No such permit is presently required. In other words, residents can buy a fire pit and simple start using the pit without proper instruction or knowledge of code. Believe me, most residents have no idea what constitutes violation.

The city of San Francisco imposes fines on any resident who does not apply for a permit for a backyard fire pit. This is to ensure they take the proper safety measures, and also to reduce the risk of out-of-control fires. Permits also ensure that smoke wafting from fire pits does not become a nuisance to neighbors or nearby businesses.

Portage, Michigan requires that original permits will be issued to property owners only after an inspection of the site of the proposed fires. Permits are valid for two years, and a renewal may be granted without a re-inspection if no complaints have been received during the previous permit period. It is the responsibility of the permit holder to apply for a renewal if one is desired.

The Homeowner's Insurance

How about any requirements of disclosure to an agent? Without the right insurance, owners of fire pits may be risking liability for bodily injury and property damage. Allstate Insurance recommends that it's best to talk with your agent to get specifics for where you live. Some areas may even be prone to wildfires. Yes, even within city limits. Your policy may require disclosing your fire pit to your agent.

Whether or not your insurance policy requires disclosure, you shouldn't dismiss the potential safety hazards of owning a fire pit. If it does cause a loss, you may or may not be financially responsible for part or all of the damage. You need to understand that fire pits can be a structural fire hazard and are certainly capable of causing smoke inhalation damage when used improperly.

("Will My Fire Pit Affect My Homeowners Insurance?"
Allstate Insurance Company. September, 2011)

Personal Health

In Milwaukee, some aldermen are considering the fact that open burning is a health hazard and a nuisance. In some cases, residents have complained about the excessive smoke coming their way.

The Newport Beach City Council in California has voted to remove 60 fire pits at Balboa and Big Corona State Beach because of safety concerns.  Acting on a recommendation from the Newport Beach Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission, the council voted unanimously to remove the fire pits over concerns that they emitted toxic fumes and were an open child safety hazard.

The council was prompted to look into the safety issues regarding fire pits by a lawsuit filed by the family of Seth Richardson, who fell into a fire pit at Huntington City Beach last year and suffered severe burn injuries that hospitalized him for several weeks. Seth was six years old at the time of the accident.

The council also said that residents living at the beach have complained that the fire pits emit toxic fumes and smoke that pollute the air.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), wood smoke is a complex mixture of gases and microscopic particles, and when these microscopic particles get into your eyes and respiratory system, they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and bronchitis.

Consider this alarming report from Clean Air Revival (Hall-Fairly). Their research discovered wood burning fire pits are more dangerous than cigarette smoke. These studies done on the effects of second hand cigarette smoke versus smoke produced from burning wood and the effects produced the following findings:

* "Each (wood burning) fire will emit close to one pound of smoke pollution" and "every pound of wood burned costs society $2.00 in health expense."

* Wood smoke is chemically active in the body forty times longer than tobacco smoke, is twelve times more carcinogenic than tobacco smoke and reduces the body's immune mechanisms by 20-40% against fighting infections.

* On top of the health concerns, the carbon dioxide emitted from wood burning smoke is bad for the environment.  

(Jane Hall, Kleinman, Fairley, and Brajer. The Institute for Economic
and Environmental Studies. California State University. October, 1994)

Logical Additions to Regulations

Keep fire pits away from areas with overhanging trees, buildings or other flammable and combustible materials. If there are trees, shrubs or plants in the area in which you want to build a fire pit, consider removing them. I even question fire pits close to grass -- grass isn't considered now in the city regulations. Isn't dry grass a highly combustible material? I believe so.

Always keep a fire extinguisher and a garden hose within reach of your fire pit. It is important that all members of the household know and understand how to use the fire extinguisher. Keep your fires small and manageable, and avoid using the fire pit on windy days. In my particular experience with my neighbors' pits, no extinguisher or hose was available nearby. In fact, the fire department used their own extinguisher and pitchers of water from the house (25-30 yard away) to extinguish a fire in a neighbor's pit.

Never use flammable liquids, like lighter fluid or gasoline, to start a fire. Never leave an open fire unattended. Before you leave for the evening, allow the fire to die down, and pour water over the hot embers to ensure they are extinguished. In my experience, smoke and embers were still visible the next morning in the pit. Of course, no one was at the fire -- one burned until noon the next day. I also saw a nearby container of charcoal lighter fluid there.

When Privileges Clash With Rights

If it becomes a continuous hazard -- a fire hazard or a nuisance to the neighbors -- people have the right to revoke the use of a pit. I was told a neighbor who is opposed to the use of a pit is to call the local department each time, which means a response with a fire truck and fire personnel will likely occur innumerable times, possibly without ever issuing a citation -- what a waste of taxpayers' money when some people simply do not want to be living within close proximity of a fire pit.

In fact, in my particular experience (after suffering the effects of four fire pits in one week), the fire department did not even completely extinguish the fire the first call, and a second call was required that same night to control the situation. Then, I was treated like a nosy complainer by the fire personnel who offered no explanation or assurance before leaving the premises. All laughs and apologies only to those operating the pit. Me -- just a problem.

Unattended, all night fires are a particularly dangerous risk. In Portsmouth, there are no restrictions on hours for using fire pits -- fires can continue long into the late A.M. and beyond. As you can imagine, that usually means alcohol and who knows what party supplies. Oh, they must attended all the time, yet the ordinance does not stipulate that "attendance" means "at the fire site." The people I talked to thought "attendance" meant just being inside the house where the outside fire was burning.

So, the fires in the city can burn continuously. I guess for consecutive days? Weeks? Months? Surely a better stipulation about how long smoke, cinders, and open flames from a single fire pit should be permitted inside city limits should be considered. Right now it's "light 'em up, and let 'em burn" as long as you stay with them.

In one particularly surprising revelation, I discovered that landlords of rental property in Portsmouth do not have to give permission to renters to operate fire pits on their property. I was told by the fire department "as renters, they have the right to light fires under the city ordinance whether the owner of the property has knowledge of the activity or not." In fact, I was told there is question about the landlord even being able to deny use of fire pits at his or her property regardless of a landlord's requests not to do so.

I would still suggest (despite the questionable code) that renters should be required to get their landlord's permission in writing to use a fire pit on any rental property. For the safety of both parties, I think the landlord and the tenants should each secure a copy with proper stipulations, signatures, and dates.

If you live in close proximity to a fire pit, you will not likely be fond of opening windows while the pit is in use or for a considerable time after its extinguishment. Smoke simply invades and chokes a neighborhood.

Gone are air conditioning savings on cooler, pleasant days and nights when open air is a neighbor's preference. With open windows, smoke clings to everything inside adjacent structures as well as choking the air of neighboring inhabitants. After the fire, I guess you could call the fire department to make a run verifying your objection to smoke inhalation and smoke costs for laundry, curtains, home fixtures, etc. Again, what a senseless waste of taxpayer's money.

The fire department questions the intent of my reminder to them that they are public servants and that we, the taxpayers, pay their salaries. They view this as starting trouble and being intimidating. I believe that is wrong. I have lived at my same residence for 40 years, paid my taxes, and reserve the right to question and to complain without being viewed as a troublemaker or as a senseless geezer. I was simply told there is an ordinance in effect, and I was to live with it. I feel I was treated poorly by those who attended the fire runs (especially since I waited until after the fourth pit in one week to report high flames more like a bonfire than a stipulated high "two foot flame."

All in all, I believe Portsmouth has some serious concerns about fire pits -- their operation and their regulation. I hold the Portsmouth Fire Department responsible not only for enforcing the regulations for each pit, but also for checking each fire pit operation for safety concerns. This is their job, and these duties should not be considered unnecessary requirements from a fire company whose first concern should be public safety, not individual rights.

But, what do I know? After all, I'm just an "invisible" 64-year-old permanent resident of the City of Portsmouth complaining after four fire pits next door as the last one raged at least four feet in the air. No reprimands were made to the pit operators; the problem became more my reluctance to accept the danger. And, that was it, except for pretty much inferring that I should "mind my own business."

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