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Using a fire pit? If you aren’t cooking with it, it’s illegal in borough; council looks at ordinance change

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 9/11/19

Few things in life are more pleasant than sitting around a fire pit in your backyard with family and friends on a nice summer night.

But if you are doing that in Middletown you are breaking the …

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Using a fire pit? If you aren’t cooking with it, it’s illegal in borough; council looks at ordinance change

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Few things in life are more pleasant than sitting around a fire pit in your backyard with family and friends on a nice summer night.

But if you are doing that in Middletown you are breaking the law — unless you are using the fire pit for cooking.

A proposed ordinance would change that and make “recreational fires” legal in Middletown — as long as residents abide by conditions borough officials say are needed to ensure safety.

The proposed ordinance, now posted on the borough website, was approved for advertisement by a 5-0 vote of council Sept. 3. The proposal must come back to council for another approval before it becomes law.

The proposal would update provisions in the borough code covering open burning that have not been touched since Ronald Reagan was president — 1987.

Back then, fire pits and other now commonplace portable recreational fire devices such as fire bowls and chimineas didn’t exist, as Middletown Fire Chief Kenny Whitebread Jr. points out.

But as the open burning provisions on the books only allowed fires in open pits for cooking, use of these fire pits and similar devices “for ambiance only” was illegal and remains so, borough Manager Ken Klinepeter told the Press & Journal in an email.

As these fire pits and other portable devices have become more popular in recent years, the lack of clarity in the law has led to confusion and ambiguity among residents and borough officials, as to what the rules are and how to interpret them.

The fire department routinely gets called out to respond to a complaint from someone about their neighbor having a fire in their backyard.

Fire officials tell the resident to put the fire out because it isn’t allowed — leading to the resident saying they are getting ready to cook using the fire pit — in which case “you can’t tell them no,” Whitebread said.

“Our hands were tied” in so far as borough officials being able to do anything to resolve the situation when one of these complaints came in, Klinepeter said.

Moreover, the lack of any regulations concerning these devices — like setbacks to control how close an open fire in your yard can be to your neighbor’s house — created an accident-waiting-to-happen scenario, according to Klinepeter.

The new ordinance removes this uncertainty for both residents and officials, said Whitebread, whose input into the proposal was sought by Council President Angela Lloyd.

“Chief Whitebread did an excellent job in researching other ordinances, and what he put together will allow residents to legally enjoy backyard fires while ensuring a safer environment for everyone,” Lloyd told the Press & Journal in a text message.

“This is to allow people the freedom to have them but to use them safely,” Whitebread said of fire pits and similar devices. “It gives (residents) the ability to finally have a recreational fire, but you have to do it safely and follow the guidelines.”

The rules and conditions in the proposed ordinance for safe use of a fire pit or similar device come straight out of ordinances on the books in other Pennsylvania municipalities, or can be found in the owners’ manuals that come with these devices, Whitebread said.

For example, the proposed ordinance requires that when fire pits and similar portable devices are in use, they be at least 15 feet away from any building or structure in all directions.

Whitebread said this is to ensure that use of the device will not accidentally damage your own home, or your neighbor’s.

There’s also a provision that smoke coming from your fire pit or device does not cross property lines into that of your neighbor.

If smoke is blowing into your neighbor’s yard, it is probably too windy to be having a fire, Whitebread said.

It’s also “common courtesy” that if your neighbor has their windows open in the summer, they shouldn’t have to put up with smoke going into their house from your fire, the chief added.

Among other provisions in the proposed ordinance, burning any type of construction material or trash is prohibited, as is using any type of flammable or combustible liquid.

At least one person 18 years of age or older must be present, and a garden hose connected to a constant water source or extinguishing device must be stored close by the fire pit or device in case of emergency, according to the proposed ordinance.

You aren’t allowed to use a fire pit or similar portable device on a deck or balcony, which is just “common sense,” Whitebread said.

The proposed ordinance also bans use of fire pits and similar portable devices on “Code Orange” or “Code Red” days when the amount of ozone and particles in the air is considered harmful to people with heart and lung disease and to older adults and children.

The rules and conditions in the proposed ordinance are “common sense safety regulations that are designed to prevent a tragedy,” Klinepeter said.