Can You Leave a Fire Pit Burning Unattended?


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You’ve already set up a nice, cozy fire in a perfect spot in your backyard or even the forest. But then, you facepalm as you realize you have to leave your camp for a short while. Now, can you leave your lit fire pit unattended since you’ll come back, anyway?

You can’t leave a fire pit burning without anyone watching it. Fires are uncontrollable and unpredictable, and the slightest draft can cause it to spread. Moreover, if you abandon an ignited fire pit, you may be fined, jailed, or both.

The rest of this article will explain why you can’t just leave a fire pit until you’re sure it’s fully extinguished. It’ll also talk about whether it’s safe to leave embers, how quickly a fire can spread, how to put out a fire pit, and give you a couple of fire safety tips to remember.

Why You Shouldn’t Abandon a Fire Pit

If you’ll be away from your blazing campfire for just some minutes to an hour, you may doubt the fire’s capacity to cause damage. It may not seem like a big deal since your camp is in an open space you can easily see from a distance. 

However, fire is unreliable. Whether contained in a pit or not, you can’t expect it to stay in place. One moment, you’ll see the fire going steady and low. The next, it’ll be raging, and sparks may come off of it that ends up burning its surroundings.

You may be surprised to know that the National Park Service shows that 85% of wildfires had been caused by humans, and among the reasons for the spread of fire were unattended campfires and improperly extinguished fire pits.

Likewise, backyard fire pits make up a small percentage of house fire causes

Besides these, you shouldn’t leave your fire pit unwatched because you may be fined or jailed for it. The fee depends on your state, but it’s normally around $200. Meanwhile, jail time can be as long as six months, but not longer.

Is It Safe to Leave Embers in a Fire Pit?

So, if you can’t leave your camp while the fire is burning, can you leave the embers in the pit? If you’ve already extinguished the blazing fire, the embers shouldn’t be a problem, right?

You can’t leave embers in a fire pit as long as they’re still hot. This means you have to make sure all the embers – glowing or not – have been doused with water or dirt. 

Embers can and will still cause an uncontrollable fire when given a chance. In fact, some of the world’s largest wildfires were actually spread by embers. If oxygen feeds the fire and the wind blows in an optimal direction, your harmless-looking embers could quickly turn deadly.

How Quickly Can Fire Spread?

The average speed of fire is 6 miles (9.6km) per hour when it’s in a forest and 14 miles (22.5km) per hour when it’s in a grassland. Meanwhile, the embers themselves can spread as far as 25 miles (40km) ahead of the fire at the speed of 16 miles (25km) per hour.

If you want to learn more, you can watch VicEmergency’s Facts of Fire on YouTube here:

Similarly, here’s a visualization of a campfire spreading by the National Center for Atmospheric Research on YouTube:

How Does Fire Spread?

Now that you know how fast fire spreads, you may be curious about how it grows in the first place. What allows a fire to reach other areas, and how exactly does that happen?

Fire spreads by heat transfer, and heat transfer happens in three ways: radiation, convection, and conduction. As long as the fire receives plenty of oxygen and fuel, it’ll keep going.

Radiation is when fire gives off heat to space. This heat will then affect the surrounding areas and eventually cause any combustible materials around to catch fire.

Meanwhile, convection happens when the heat from gasses transfer from hot places to cooler places. You can see this by looking at the smoke rising from your fire pit. That smoke carries your fire’s heat.

If you’ve incorporated oxygen into lighting fires before, you already know how convection works. Convection encourages the spread of fire as oxygen fuels the fire, and the heat of the flames itself ends up burning the areas with heavy convection levels.

Lastly, conduction is one you’re most likely already familiar with. Conduction happens when heat crawls through materials. It’s what you’ll often see on television: flames engulfing trees, houses, leaves, or any other objects.

So, fire spreads by radiation, convection, and conduction. Sometimes, it may grow exclusively through one of those ways, but oftentimes it spreads through all three ways. If you light your fire in a cluttered forest, small backyard, or anywhere with enough materials that can catch fire, you can imagine how easy it’ll be for the fire the spread when left unattended. 

How to Put Out a Fire Pit?

Properly extinguishing a fire pit is just as crucial as not leaving it unattended. So, follow these measures to ensure your fire pit will be harmless once you leave it:

  • As much as possible, let the wood burn to ash first.
  • If you know you’re about to leave, stop fueling the fire at least an hour beforehand.
  • If there are still burning chunks of wood or coal, spread them out.
  • You can use a stick or a shovel to spread them out.
  • Then, grab a bucket of water and douse your fire with it.
  • Keep a safe distance from the fire and be mindful of the steam that’ll come after.
  • Likewise, make sure all the embers are doused – red or not.
  • Moreover, use your stick or shovel to stir the ashes after you’ve doused it.
  • Add more water if some parts of your used fire pit weren’t completely soaked.
  • Lastly, check your pit’s temperature and its surrounding area.

Fire Pit Safety Tips

Now, if you want to keep things safer, here are a few points to remember:

  • Opt for a fire pan instead of making a traditional campfire. A fire pan could be anything like a metal pan or a barbeque grill pan. You can put your fire on it as long as it has at least three inches of sides and it’s elevated on rocks. If you’re looking for ideas, something like Kingso Metal Fire Pit from Amazon will do.
  • Have adequate space for your fire pit. You need to be clutter-free to minimize the chances of setting your surroundings on fire. So, aim to have at least 10 feet of free space around you. 
  • Observe the weather before starting a fire. Starting a fire when the wind is raging isn’t recommended. Wind provides fire with plenty of oxygen and can cause it to become more intense and rapidly spread.
  • Use proper firewood. The best firewood is one that’s been kept try for at least six months. Hardwoods like oak, hickory, ash, birch, or cherry are great materials. However, softwoods like pine or cedar should be avoided since they can produce quite some spark and smoke. 
  • Keep water close to you. While it already seems obvious, most people still tend to forget to prepare a water bucket next to them on a burning fire pit. 

Final Thoughts

Leaving a burning fire pit unattended is not only dangerous but also punishable by law. Fire can quickly and unexpectedly spread in numerous ways, so the best way to avoid this is to keep it under as much control as possible.

Remember, being safe is better than being sorry. And when it comes to playing with fire, you’ll want to prioritize safety and damage control above all.

Vincent Steele

Vincent is a freelance writer based in Santa Ana, California. When he isn't writing articles for Temperature Master, he can be found biking or hanging out with his cat, Shelly.

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