by William Murphy
There are few things more exciting than getting ready to light up the firepit or chiminea for an exciting evening in your backyard with friends and family.
Whether you’re doing some cooking or just lounging around, sitting by the fire is always a good relaxing time. In the summer, nothing really can beat it!
That is, unless you have failed to take the necessary safety precautions and are now forced to put down your drink so that you can attempt to contain the blazing inferno that is destroying your house.
That’s why we decided it would be a really good idea to dedicate this quick article to the topic of fire safety in the backyard. If you have stumbled upon this, we encourage you do read on, as you can never be too careful when it comes to properly managing the flames.
This article will cover some of the general basics, after which we’ll delve into a few specifics on chimineas (cause they are just so great!).
First things first, regardless of what kind of fire you are setting up, you will need to make sure it is placed in a suitable location. Be aware that fires spew heat, smoke and sometimes throw out embers in their immediate vicinity.
This means that they need enough clearing to not pose a danger to stuff nearby.
With that said, never set up fires in tight spaces or if there is any kind of obstacle directly above such as trees, or building overhangs.
By extension, setting up a firepit, barbecue, or chiminea under any kind of canopy or gazebo is also a recipe for a bad time as it’s both a fire and carbon monoxide risk.
The only exceptions are some models of gazebos that have a dedicated vent for barbecues and cooking.
Here’s an example of a ventilated gazebo under which you can barbecue or set a gazebo:
Luckily these are built exactly for this purpose and are designed to handle barbecuing safely, however this is not universal. You should always read your manufacturer’s instructions carefully to confirm if you can go for it or not.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that you cannot expect too have much in terms of gardening in close proximity to your fire.
Any kind of fire setup will dry out the vegetation in its immediate surroundings, so be careful not to harm any of your flower arrangements. This is especially since dry vegetation becomes a fire hazard as well.
After you’ve picked a nice spot with a generous bubble of space around it, there are a few more considerations before setting it ablaze. One rookie mistake you should avoid is having your fuel close to the fire.
With the exception of barbecues with a properly secured propane container underneath, the firewood or coal you are using should never be in the vicinity of your fire.
All it takes is one rogue ember and your entire stash of firewood could turn into a huge regrettable blaze.
Once that is out of the way, the final step to spatial awareness is making sure your guests, children, and pets are able to move around without getting too close to the fire.
Seating should be placed in a way where people can come and go easily without risk of tripping over things and tumbling into the fire (as that would make you look like a bad host).
Always take the time to secure pets as needed and to instruct children to keep their distance from the fire.
Even after all measures have been taken, you should always continue to be vigilant and ready to respond if any risk or problem comes up.
When starting the fire you should keep in mind that each fire appliance has it’s own recommended fuel and procedures. Always be sure to read the manual and follow the recommended process, avoiding any kind of improvisation or creativity on this front.
While there are many different ways to properly start a fire, it is universally agreed upon that using gasoline is an absolutely terrible idea.
This is because of its propensity to either evaporate and fill the area with explosive vapors, or to splash everywhere and make surfaces extra flammable.
The classic scenario you also want to avoid is the one where a stream of gasoline catches fire and runs up all the way to the spout of whatever container you’re pouring it from, making it such that you can literally pour out liquid fire from it.
Upon this happening, people have a painful tendency to panic and shake it up, spilling mini gasoline fires all over their backyard. All in all….not fun. So do take our word for it and just don’t use gasoline. Please?
On the list of other materials to avoid using as fuel are any kind of pressure treated wood, compound wood, scraps or construction materials (such as drywall) because they typically emit toxic fumes as they burn.
Watch this video for an idea of what NOT to do.
Once the fire is going and everything seems to be on track, you can go on and enjoy yourself, but know that your mission is not over.
You always need to keep an eye on the fire until it’s fully extinguished. While adding wood to the fire, make sure it you are not letting it grow too large.
Finally, when everything is said and done, you must do your due diligence to extinguish the flames thoroughly and avoid any surprises in the middle of the night. The proper method for extinguishing varies a little bit with each setup.
For firepits, it’s generally recommended that you use a shovel to spread out the embers evenly, add an abundant amount of water from a safe distance, and repeat the process until everything is cool to the touch.
For chimineas, that will actually not work as the shock from the water can cause it to crack.
Your best bet with chimineas is to let them mostly burn out on their own, after which you spread out the ashes/embers and add sand to smother the flames.
Give it some time and keep it under supervision. In both cases, collect the ashes and dispose of them in a metal container. It’s important to stick with metal as it can handle any hot embers that might have snuck in.
Now that we have the basics figured out, we can take a look at some specifics regarding chimineas.
As mentioned before, on top of any advice from us, we strongly recommend always reading your manufacturer’s instructions on any of the products you are using, be it the fire appliance itself, the fuel, or any accessories.
When setting up your chiminea you should make sure that it has sufficient buffer space around it and that you are placing it on an even, non-flammable surface.
You should go for somewhere on concrete, patio stones, or on the ground, avoiding any wooden surfaces such as decks.
While chimineas have historically been used as indoor stoves as well, it is very important to note that all modern day chimineas are for outdoor use only. This is because of the serious carbon monoxide risk associated.
Before getting started with your chiminea, it’s always a good idea to line the bottom with either sand or lava rocks. This makes it so that the fire isn’t in direct contact with the body, which prolongs your chimineas lifespan and prevents premature cracking.
Depending on what model of chiminea you have, you may be required to treat it with a wax sealant before lighting the first fire.
After the preliminary measures have been taken, you should light the fire using either a specialized chiminea fire starting kit, or using coal/wood and some kindle. Lighter fluid can be used only if it is specially designed for use with chimineas.
Do not use generic lighter fluid.
When you light your fire, if this is a new chiminea, you should start off with small fires for the first few times and then build your way up to a full-sized one.
This allows the chiminea to adjust to the usage and significantly prolongs its lifespan. Once you’ve moved on up to the full-sized fire, you should always be careful not to let it get too big.
It can be easy to overfill your chiminea with wood and have the fire get out of control.
The rule of thumb is that there should never be flames coming out of the top chimney, just smoke. The fire should be contained exclusively inside the bowl.
One thing to watch out for as well are sparks, as they can fly out of the top of the chimney even if the fire is an appropriate size.
For this you can use a spark shield or spark arrestor. Most models come with one included, but if yours did not, it’s easy to purchase at any hardware store.
After the party is over be sure to thoroughly extinguish the fire as we specified above. One thing to be careful of is the fact that chimineas retain heat for a long time.
Even after the flames are long gone, your chiminea will radiate a cozy stream of heat, which is great for entertaining but that also means they are very hot to the touch.
Here’s a video by Youtuber La Hacienda UK showing how to light a fire in a chiminea in a very sensible and safe way.
Now that you’ve read through our little article, you are better equipped to avoid any kind of party-ruining backyard fire fiasco. Your neighbours, garden, and future self will all thank you.
Remember to always stay alert and, if things start getting out of hand, rush to a fire extinguisher or call 911 (or whichever your local emergency service number might be).
About William Murphy
William has worked as a general contractor in the city of Fremont, CA for over three decades. During that time, he's written articles about architecture, construction, and environmental protection for various publications. He is an expert on green building and sustainable design. When he's not writing or working, William enjoys spending time with his wife and two children.