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Warm up to bonfire safety tips

Crackling logs in a backyard bonfire can be relaxing on a cold, fall night. To avoid complications and a potential public nuisance call, check with local authorities to make sure regulations are followed. (Republican Eagle photo by Michael Brun)

As the crisp, autumn air returns to Minnesota and Wisconsin evenings, few things are more relaxing than putting on a sweatshirt and feeling the warm glow of a backyard fire.

S’mores, hot dogs and ghost stories — when enjoyed responsibly, a recreational fire can make for a safe and entertaining family activity. But with an open flame in the tight confines of a residential neighborhood, fire pits risk causing a nuisance or injury if not properly attended.

Recreational fires in Red Wing do not require permits, but are regulated by a number of rules outlined in city code.

Campfires in the city limits must be contained in either a fire department-approved burning appliance or in a fire pit dug below ground level. Such pits can be no larger than three feet in diameter and one foot deep. Flames can go no higher than three feet above the ground.

Residents also are required to contact Goodhue County Sheriff’s Office to notify authorities when planning a fire, according to the city’s website.

Andy Speltz, fire marshal with Red Wing Fire Department, said he recommends informing neighbors before lighting a campfire as well.

“People like having a campfire, but not everyone likes the smell,” Speltz said.

City regulations, which allow only seasoned firewood or charcoal to be used for recreational fires, help to limit the impact of smoke.

That means no wet or green plants, garbage or treated woods, which can really smolder and give off nasty smelling smoke, Speltz said.

Additional safety measures in city code say all recreational fires must be kept a minimum of 25 feet away from any structure, as well as 15 feet from power lines and property lines.

There also must be a means to extinguish the fire available at all times, be it a shovel and dirt, water hose or fire extinguisher.

Although there have been no major incidents of personal injury here related to recreational fires in recent memory, Speltz said it is important to be cautious, especially for families with small children.

“Once a fire gets going, it draws little kids in,” he said, adding parents need to set clear boundaries to keep children at a safe distance.

Even as children grow older, city code still requires that a responsible adult keeps watch over a recreational fire at all times.

Speltz added that outdoor fire appliances, which often have shields or screens, can help reduce the risk of injury from popping sparks or embers.

Failure to comply with regulations can result in the fire department or other authorities ordering a fire be extinguished.

If residents do not follow the order, authorities will put it out themselves and potentially issue a citation, Speltz said. But such instances “are few and far between.”

In cases of high wind or a burning ban issued by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, authorities can forbid recreational burning for safety reasons.

Although each municipality has different rules regarding recreational burning, regulations in nearby cities — such as Cannon Falls and Lake City — are fairly uniform.

Residents should contact their local fire department for specific rules before starting a recreational fire.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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