Before City Councillors sit down Monday night to consider new rules for fire pits, I recommend that we should first know who can have a fire pit in Kitchener?

I think that the majority of homeowners are already not allowed to have outdoor fires.

If I can’t have a fire pit, who can?

I can’t and I think I have a half-decent sized backyard.

backyard picture

We’ll keep it simple and look at it as a rectangle with measurements roughly 25 feet wide by 51 1/2 feet deep (or about 7.62 metres x 15.7 metres).

According to the new rules, my firepit would need to be 6 metres from any building, structure, property line, tree, hedge, fence, roadway, overhead wire or other combustible article. My yard is more than 4 metres too narrow. Even under the old 5 metre rule, my yard is considered too narrow for a fire pit.

In my case, we also have phone wires going across the backyard.

But even if my yard was wide enough and we didn’t have the phone lines, I still couldn’t have a fire pit. Why? My neighbours have trees that cross over the property line. And when the city refers to trees (as verified by a drawing shared on Twitter), they do not mean the trunk of the tree. What they mean is the canopy of the tree (or where the branches stop being above the ground). So I couldn’t even start counting my six metres until I cleared the tree.

Now I’ve seen a good number of backyards in Kitchener in both the older and newer areas and I’d suggest that our yard is at least average sized and quite possibly bigger than average.

If the majority can’t have fire pits, we should consider a ban

So if we can’t legally have a fire pit, who can? My guess is that’s it is a small minority of homeowners in Kitchener and has always been a small minority. How many people have a lot that is at least 12 m x 12 m? Or even 10 m x 10m? I’ve even seen yards bigger than ours that would not meet the criteria.

The bylaw, enacted after chimineas and other outdoor fireplaces became fashionable, has created the perception that outdoor fires are allowed in the city but if my hypothesis is correct, the perception is much greater than the reality.

Even if you have a yard where the size and conditions allow you to have a firepit, I suspect it leaves very few options for where the fire pit can be placed. Even in those yards, I doubt that the fire pit is located in that sweet spot since it would normally be right smack dab in the middle of the yard which based on my experience isn’t where you find them.

So if we’re going to have such strict regulations on where fire pits can go, I suggest we’re better off ending the perception that fire pits are allowed and ban them.

Are such strict rules necessary?

When I reflect upon the rules, I wonder if they really need to be so strict. Certainly, they can not be the same rules that Ontario Parks uses to select where it places fire pits on its camp sites. I can’t imagine many of them would qualify especially if they needed to be 5 or 6 metres away from the canopy of a tree.

My preferred option

I lean towards allowing fire pits if they are to be broadly allowed and more than just the perception that they are allowed.

If we go that route, we should have regulations that keep people safe and allow the vast majority of homeowners to have fire pits. I’m not sure what distance that would be but I’d suggest that maybe it should be 3 metres and that for trees that it be from the trunk and from the ground to the bottom of the branches.

Addressing health and enjoyment of property concerns

We would still need to consider the legitimate concerns of people who have health concerns related to outdoor fire places and those who can not enjoy their own yard due to their dislike of their neighbours fire. It seems to me that these are the exception to the rule and should be dealt with as the exception to the rule. If a complaint is made, the first step should be to confirm that the fire pit is legally located and educate the owner on where it can be if it isn’t. If there is no spot or the fire pit is not moved to one, that homeowner should be held accountable for whatever punishment the bylaw includes. I’d suggest that mediation be used to try to find a win-win solution after a second complaint from a legally placed fire pit.

Looking for a compromise solution

If we proceed as I’ve outlined here, I suggest that there’s no need to find a compromise solution such as the need to get a permit for outdoor fires and to limit them to 6 a year as suggested by Councillor Vrbanovic nor to only allow them on Friday and Saturday nights as suggested by Councillor Davey.

I originally didn’t understand how the 6 fire limit could be enforced. Who would be keeping track of the number of fires? But I now see that a permit would need to be obtained for each fire. That’s an improvement since presumably the city would ensure no one could buy more than 6.

But I’m still not sure it’s enforceable. Someone who has trouble with their neighbours fires would still need to keep track of the number of fires. Then when a seventh or eighth fire is held, they’d need to hope that they didn’t sneak in a fire or two without a permit. Essentially, they’d need to be able to prove that their neighbour has had more than 6 fires. I’m sure there are ways to prove the number of fires but not everyone has the technology and/or know how to track the proof. If the bylaw applies to everyone, they really shouldn’t have to have the technology or know how either.

Keep any compromise simple to easy to understand and enforce or you can expect people to blatantly defy it.

So of the compromises I’ve heard, I like Scott Davey’s better. But I’m sure that still will provoke legitimate complaints that need to be addressed.

So rather than searching for a compromise based what I believe is a relatively small number of exceptions, let’s create a bylaw that addresses the majority of homeowners across the city. I’d strongly prefer one that allowed them at most homes and dealt with the exceptions as exceptions. If that’s not possible because it’s not safe enough, I reluctantly suggest they should be banned.

16 thoughts on “The perceptions and realities of outdoor fires in Kitchener

  1. Hmm I tend to agree with you that majority of yards do not qualify. I would be able to do if city cut down or trimmed way back their darn tree that is hanging in yard. That is an entire other issue. Along with golden rod growing in city. But the fire pits – should not be banned but need permit. I happen to love smelling a good bon fire. Only part of camping I really ever enjoyed 😉 We have 2 neighbors that have fire pits. According to your listed rules only one maybe qualifies. I have nI problem with either, as are careful and respectful.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience with fire pits Darleen. The fact that many of the existing ones are not where the bylaw specifies and do not cause problems with neighbours is why I made my suggestion.

  2. I absolutely agree that exceptions should be dealth with as exceptions. And they can be dealt with under both the existing bylaw and nuisance bylaws. Why do we need to make changes? Why do we need to institute a complicated permit system, that will cost money to administer, when we already have the solutions in place to deal with the occaissional problems?

    1. Thanks Dawn. You’ve put into words what I was thinking but didn’t express as clearly as you did for why I suggest avoiding a potentially complicated compromise based on a relatively small number of problems.

  3. I have a firepit which fails on at least three counts. No problem, as long as I don’t build a fire in it I suppose. I live in near downtown Kitchener and for a number of years we roasted a lamb in the firepit on Boxing or New Year’s day. The fire dept. came by the first year. One of our neighbours must have smelled smoke and reported it. The firefolk took a look, said “you seem to have everything under control” or words to that effect and never came back again. Of course, by the second year most of the neighbours were coming to the party.

    What would happen if you set up a wood stove in the yard and left the doors open, or a wood fired pizza oven? How would a wood fire in a charcoal grill be treated?
    Seems to me there should be some distinction between an open fire and a pit with
    effective spark control.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience Matt. I think it shows that a ban is not mandatory nor are overly strict rules for placement of fire pits. Let’s have a bylaw that reflects our backyards and how people are using them but that addresses the exceptions that cause problems.

      I think you’re right about the difference in type of equipment used too.

  4. Some good comments James. Putting a compromise idea on the table and then deferring it for the summer was done so we could hear from citizens like you and so many others about the direction we should ultimately consider. Generally speaking, what I’ve heard is that folks think a limit on hours are reasonable but maybe a little longer than 7-11. Probably should look at the distance issue as well. They also think stronger enforcement of the nuisance provisions is important – that helps address concerns for people with health issues, etc.. And there is no need for a permit system. But overall, the vast majority of citizens, would like us to continue to allow the fires to exist. A reality that even occurs in communities like Cambridge and Waterloo (where they are banned) as long as nobody complains. Still keeping an open mind until we deal with this issue on Monday night, but that’s where I am leaning at this point.

    1. Thanks for the update Berry! I’m glad to hear you’ve moved away from the permit system. By the sounds of it my feedback is in line with what you’re hearing too. Whatever happens, I hope that takes into consideration the size, shape and other realities of the vast majority of backyards. There’s no point having a bylaw that really only allows fires in a small number of yards while creating the perception that everyone can have one. I am glad council took some time to get feedback. More may be needed to get a solution that works best for the most number of people/homeowners.

  5. Instead of all these punitive measurement rules why not only allow a person to have a firepit if they have successfully completed a health and safety course relating to the operation and supervision of one? This will allow them to use their own common sense and judgement on locating a pit on their own property.

    1. Thanks for your input Paul. If such a course exists that might be an idea to consider. Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary since there are many other health and safety threats inside our homes that no one is required to have take a course to learn about. Nor would any politician dare suggest it!

    2. James, your preferred option would work! Like the idea of mediation for those rare instances of concerns between neighbours. Moderation rather than extreme reaction will serve the spirit of community rather than the letter of unrealistic bylaws that will spur development of vigilante-like neighborhoods–not the Kitchener that I envision!

      1. Thanks Patricia! I know at least a couple city councillors have read my post and the comments shared here so maybe it’ll help be a catalyst towards a constructive solution.

  6. My comments are more about fires and smoke in general. A lot of people do not have the experience of how smoke can drift. Living on the 14th floor of a lovely apartment I can attest to this. There have been many instances this summer when it was cool enough outside that I could leave my windows open and turn the a/c off, but with a bit of a breeze the smell of smoke would be blowing through my place. This forced me to shut my windows, which causes my unit to heat up regardless of the temperature outside, forcing me to turn the a/c back on and waste needless energy. Unfortunately there are a lot of people out there that do not have a/c and rely on having their windows open 24/7 for any relief. Hopefully my perspective gives everyone something to think about.

    1. Thanks Craig. That is a good perspective to add to the decision-making process. Most folks would never think about how people in your situation could possibly be affected by smoke. I’m wondering how often you experience the type of situation you describe? Is it often enough to support a ban on fires in the city?

      1. Hi James, it basically depends on wind speed and direction. It is obviously worse if I ever want to open the windows in the cooler times of the year when people have their home fireplaces and chimneys spewing smoke. I realize you can’t ban this, but with more people installing electric or gas fireplaces eventually it will become less of an issue over time. I am not sure if a total ban within city limits is the way to go, but anyone that is adversely affected by smoke, such as myself, would probably endorse it.

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