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October 3, 2012

Ferndale may allow open burning in backyard fire pits

By Jeremy Selweski
C & G Staff Writer

FERNDALE — City officials are considering a revision to the Ferndale fire ordinance that would allow residents to use backyard fire pits, if they obtain a permit from the city.

The amended ordinance is expected to come before the Ferndale City Council at its next meeting Oct. 8. Currently, the city’s policy prohibits the open burning of everything but charcoal for outdoor cooking purposes, as resident Ben Updyke found out the hard way a couple of weeks ago.

“I have a very nice brick fire pit built by the original owner of my home, and I’ve been burning wood in it for the past five years,” he told the council Sept. 24. “On Saturday evening, I was outside burning (some firewood), and the Fire Department shows up, unbeknownst to me, and they’re out there with a garden hose putting (the fire) out.”

Updyke, who was also ticketed for the violation, said he was not even aware that outdoor burning was illegal in Ferndale. He requested that the city take a look at its existing ordinance and consider making some changes to allow for enclosed backyard fire pits.

As it turns out, Ferndale officials were already in the midst of doing exactly that. According to Fire Chief Kevin Sullivan, the Fire Department has recently been working with City Attorney Dan Christ to draft a revised ordinance.

“I feel like thousands of people are doing this in their yard anyway, regardless of what the law says,” he said. “We just figured that if we could put some constraints on it, it would allow people to have fire pits without being penalized for it. We want people to be able to enjoy this without letting it run wild.”

Mayor Dave Coulter believes that many Ferndale residents share Updyke’s feelings on the matter. He noted that a big reason why so many of them are already taking part in outdoor burning is due to a lack of knowledge.

“I feel like the majority of our residents don’t even know about this restriction,” he said. “It’s not a widely known ordinance. I’ve been in many backyards in Ferndale where people have had outdoor fires burning. And with the increased popularity of these fire pits, this is something that’s probably not going away anytime soon.”

The reason why it took so long for Updyke to be penalized for using his fire pit is a simple one: This was most likely the first time that one of his neighbors reported it to the Fire Department.

According to Fire Marshal Brian Batten, “We don’t drive around looking for (outdoor burning); we only respond if someone calls us to complain about it. And let me tell you, it has become a logistical nightmare to enforce.”

Ferndale’s new proposed ordinance would require fire pit owners to purchase a $25 permit annually from the city, as well as subject them to inspections from the Fire Department. The ordinance would also restrict the overall size of their fire pit’s burning area, its minimum distance from any neighboring structures and the types of materials that are allowed to be burned.

“People will be limited to only clean wood and clean fuel — basically, only stuff that you would burn in an indoor fireplace,” Sullivan explained.

Batten pointed out that while hardwoods are recommended for fire pits, many other items — such as treated lumber, furniture, leaves and trash — can cause problems due to excessive smoke and unpleasant smells.

“The real hazard here is an air quality issue,” he said. “Smoke drifts away from people’s property and into neighbors’ windows while they’re trying to sleep at night, and sometimes foul odors come along with it. That smoke can also stain people’s houses and windows if it’s really heavy.”

Still, while fire pits are known to give off a lot of smoke, the modern units — which include steel enclosures, clay chimineas and other outdoor fireplaces — are not typically thought of as fire hazards.

“Most commercial fire pits that they sell now are very safe,” Batten said. “The problem in urban areas is that people want the ambiance of a campfire out in the country. But if you get people burning things they’re not supposed to, or burning really late at night, it can quickly become a nuisance.”

For these reasons and others, city officials are eager to put the revised ordinance in place. Coulter believes that there is enough support on council for it to pass, mainly because of the Fire Department’s decision to lead the charge on it.

“I think this new ordinance will help us to modernize our local policy to keep up with the trends of the day,” he said. “But I don’t think that we would even be considering it if it didn’t have the support of our fire chief. We greatly respect and value his professional opinion on issues like this.”

Sullivan is hopeful that the ordinance can strike the proper balance by allowing residents to use fire pits in a responsible manner that does not create problems for their neighbors.

“For years, we’ve had all sorts of complaints from residents about smoke from outdoor burning,” he said. “So we eventually decided that if we can’t stop this from happening, we might as well play along, but try to make sure that people are as safe and comfortable as possible.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Jeremy Selweski at jSelweski@candgnews.com or at (586)218-5004.