Spending pleasant evenings relaxing on your beautiful wooden deck is one of the great joys of the warmer months. It makes perfect sense to want to extend the deck-enjoyment season by adding a fire pit, but should you?
You should never use an outdoor fire pit on a wooden deck for legal, financial, and safety reasons. Doing so can result in property damage, physical harm, and financial expense, as wood is a very flammable material. If there was a mishap – or even an errant spark – the results could be disastrous.
The rest of this article will discuss the many dangers of installing a fire pit on a wooden deck and offer some great suggestions for what you can choose for outdoor enjoyment instead.
The Risk of Danger Is Real
Reports show that 3000 fires in the United States are started yearly by fire pits. There have been several incidents in the last few years where a pleasant evening around an outdoor fire pit resulted in consequences that far outweighed any enjoyment.
- In 2018 in New Jersey, the heat of ashes was enough to start an uncontrolled fire. The residents had extinguished the fire itself, but the ashes were so hot they melted the deck, and it began to burn.
- In 2020 in Pennsylvania, a blaze started by a fire pit traveled to the side of the house and attic, resulting in serious damage to both the deck and the house itself.
- In 2020 in Kansas, a fire pit on a deck destroyed a duplex, leaving it uninhabitable.
Understanding the danger doesn’t need to scare you away from a fire pit entirely but can help you make intelligent choices that you won’t regret later.
Even if you feel confident about your ability to manage a fire, realistically there are many factors that even an experienced fire tender can’t control. Natural forces and human accidents can all affect how dangerous a fire can become.
Wind and Air Flow
You might start your fire on a still, calm evening, but an hour later when the fire is really going, the wind has picked up as well. Even with an excellent pit, unexpected wind gusts can blow sparks and embers onto your deck.
Best case scenario, you end up with char marks on your once attractive deck. Worst case scenario, one of those sparks is enough to set the deck on fire.
Airflow also plays a role. The more air fire can access, the hotter it can become. The interaction with air is why people blow on a fire to get it started and why bellows help keep a fire going for a long time. A rushing wind can feed your fire and cause it to grow beyond your expected boundaries.
You can’t control the wind, so it’s best to keep a hungry fire well away from a wooden deck.
Accidents and Clumsiness
Nobody spills anything on purpose, but accidents can happen just as easily while relaxing out on the deck as they can anywhere else. Someone might accidentally knock over a container of lighter fluid or a nearby citronella candle full of fuel. Once it’s poured across the deck, it can cause it to ignite very quickly.
Characteristics of the Deck
If your deck is painted, there is a certain degree of heat it will tolerate. Unless you are entirely confident of both the temperature of your fire and the threshold of your paint, you risk causing the paint to crack or peel because it has gotten too hot.
Some types of wood are better at sustaining high temperatures than others. Even if your deck doesn’t catch fire, you could warp the wood and end up with an uneven, bumpy platform.
There may also be structural issues that make your deck less heat-tolerant, especially if it’s older.
Wood Fires Burn Hotter Than Any Other Type of Fire
You may think all fires burn at the same temperature, but that’s not true. The temperature of a fire can differ based on available airflow, the material being burned, and the inclusion of radiant heat.
We measure heat in British Thermal Units or BTUs. Scientifically, one BTU is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of a pound of water by one degree. In layman’s terms, a BTU is the amount of energy released by burning one match.
You can find bioethanol fire pits at the low end that burn at 4,000 BTUs or lower. In the mid-range, propane fire pits can burn anywhere from 10,000 to 70,000 BTUs. A wood fire pit blows them all out of the water, easily able to put off 100,000 BTUs or more.
Wood fires also involve more than one type of heat. The temperature of the burning wood itself is compounded by radiant heat, which you can most easily visualize as glowing coals. The coals are not actually on fire, but if you put your hand near them, you can feel that they’re still giving off lots of heat, and they’re hot enough to grill a steak over.
Anything heated by the fire gives off radiant heat – the embers, logs, and even the fire pit itself. Radiant heat compounds the overall warmth of the fire. You don’t just have a fire – you have hot logs, hot coals, hot embers, and even the hot surface of the fire pit itself.
The temperature of a wood fire is almost ten times hotter than the temperatures required for first-degree burns, and your deck may not be able to handle it.
If the Worst Happens, Your Insurance May Not Cover It
In most cases, your homeowner’s insurance will cover fire pits and the damage they cause to your house. You should check with your insurance company to ensure that your policy includes that coverage. Unfortunately, separate structures like sheds, treehouses, and swing sets are not covered. If you have a free-standing garage, it could also be at risk.
Additionally, your insurance probably won’t cover any damage your out-of-control fire does to your neighbor’s fence or property. Even worse, your homeowner’s insurance likely won’t cover fire-related injury, leaving you stuck figuring out how to pay someone else’s medical bills.
Safer Solutions for Fire Pit Placement
Here are some helpful guidelines for the placement of your fire pit.
- Choose a location 20-30 feet (609.6 – 914.4 cm) away from your house, your neighbor’s property, and any free-standing flammable structures.
- Find a spot clear of overhanging branches and free of dry leaves or other types of kindling.
- Place the fire pit on level ground to minimize the possibility of spills.
- Consider adding a barrier around the pit, like a heat-proof stone wall, to help people keep their distance and prevent anyone from stumbling in.
- Keep an extinguisher or other fire safety equipment nearby and accessible so you can respond quickly if an emergency does occur.
- Purchase a smokeless fire pit with a lid and screen to keep embers safely inside, such as the Breeo. You can purchase the spark screen accessory for your specific model fire pit. They also make a special Base that supposedly allows you to use on a deck, but we don’t recommend it. It’s more of a base and heat shield to protect concrete or lawn.
- To avoid char marks on the grass, choose a fire pit with a supportive base that lifts it off the ground, or invest in a fireproof pad underneath it.
The idea of sitting on your wooden deck right next to a glowing fire pit is tempting, but in this situation, the risks to your property, safety, and finances outweigh the imagined benefits. Once you understand the guidelines, you’ll be able to find the right pit and the right spot to enjoy your evenings outdoors. You may find yourself enjoying another part of your yard while staying relaxed and safe.