Last Monday night at the Rolla City Council, I like to have fallen out of my chair when I heard Fire Chief Robert Williams say he was proposing a rewrite of the city’s fire code to include a provision that fire-pit use must first include a phone call to Rolla Fire and Rescue to get permission to use it.
I’ve got a couple of friends from California, one who has moved to Southwest Missouri and one who is planning to retire to Southeast Missouri in a few years, who have told me the horror stories of that state’s over-regulation. Those guys could not and cannot build a fire in the fireplace or grill a burger or brat or even a weenie, because outdoor burning in their communities was and is banned.
“Oh, great,” I thought. “Williams is trying to Californicate Rolla. Just what we need.”
Fourth Ward Councilman Louis Magdits apparently thought something along those lines, too, for his response was to ask Williams, “Are you for real?”
Chief Williams took a lot of flak from Magdits, Fifth Ward Councilman J.D. Williams and Sixth Ward Councilman Tony Bahr. J.D. Williams, a former fire chief himself, told Chief Williams that government can’t protect everyone from hurt or death. Bahr was aghast that he would not be able use his chiminea on a cool fall evening without getting a permit.
Chief Williams firmly stood his ground, telling the council that fire pits and the like are dangerous. If residents don’t use them carefully, and being careful means not using them when there’s a wind, the fire pits can lead to disaster.
Fifth Ward Councilman Brian Woolley, adopting the usually correct “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude, asked Chief Williams if there have been any past problems with fire pits. The chief said there have been calls from neighbors who objected to the use of the pits, because the pit owners had fired them up in a breeze and the neighbors fretted the fire would be whipped up and could move next door.
I left the meeting unpersuaded that the chief’s regulation proposal was needed.
Later I did a little web browsing to find out if these contraptions are as dangerous as the chief says they can be. I’m persuaded now that he’s correct.
They are hazardous partially because of their design but primarily because of the morons that operate them. You might be of the opinion, as was I, that there isn’t anything different between a fire pit and a grill. That isn’t true. The fire pits are bigger and hold much more fuel. And apparently, it is the habit of some moronic users to just let them burn themselves out.
Page 2 of 3 - The Sioux City (Iowa) Journal has an online report of a couple who used a mobile fire pit to roast hot dogs with their grandchildren. Old Granddad said he thought about throwing water on the fire pit when they were finished, but he didn’t. "A lot of people don't like to do that because it's metal. It rusts or makes a soupy mess," Granddad said. "That's probably what should have been done."
Probably should have, because 24 hours later, firefighters were pouring water on the couple’s house. A gust of wind stirred the embers in the fire pit, resulting in a blaze that spread to the house.
“Fire investigators discovered that a spark from the burn pit, which had been moved onto a cement patio beside the garage, ignited leaves behind a plastic patio box. The fire traveled up the west side of the garage across the soffit and into the house,” the Journal reported.
A fire pit, even a mobile one, is deeper than a grill, holds more fuel, which is wood rather than briquettes, and has a screened cover that allows the breeze to continue to feed that fire. Grills aren’t deep and usually use briquettes which burn differently from natural firewood; they don’t have a cover or top, and should be extinguished thoroughly before being left unattended, but the threat of fire is not nearly as large as it is from a fire pit.
Smoker-grills and smokers have lids that aren’t screened, and vents that can be adjusted. Even these devices should be extinguished instead of being left unattended, but putting on the lid and closing the vents makes them far less dangerous than a smoldering fire pit with a screened lid.
If you go off and leave a grill, a smoker-grill or smoker unattended, you’re taking a chance, but if you go off and leave a fire pit unattended, you’re a moron, especially if you move it to a spot close to your garage.
There were other stories on the web about the hazards of fire pits. Writer Delores Gempel Lekowski writes on the Burn Survivors website http://www.burnsurvivorsttw.org/fsafety/firepit.html) about a visit to a friend’s house where a commercial fire pit sat on a fireproof mat on a deck. In the evening when there was a chill in the air, the friend piled wood into the pit and set it ablaze. Flames shot up. The writer says she worried about the children who were running to and fro on the deck to jump into a hot tub and back out again. “(A)nd, I hoped the flying ambers would not set the deck or worse, the house, on fire,” she writes.
Page 3 of 3 - Lekowski says she mentioned to her friend the possibility of fire, and the friend pooh-poohed the idea, saying the family used the fire pit “all the time” with no consequences.
“(A)nd she commented that I worry too much about fire safety,” Lekowski writes. “She was wrong on both counts! I do not worry about fire safety; I worry about fire carelessness. You can never worry too much about being fire safe; it is when you do not worry about it that accidents happen.”
Chief Williams is one of those who don’t worry about fire safety; he’s worried about carelessness. He won’t call the users of fire pits morons, but I will, because in one way or another we’re all morons because we’re humans and we tend to be careless. Just about every one of us is careless.
Oh, sure, you may think you’re smarter than everyone else because you live in the No. 19 community of the Smartest Cities 2013 list by Lumosity, as we reported last week. I told a friend about that list, and she said, “Smartest city? Rolla? I guess they’ve never been to Walmart after dark.”
HGTV thinks we’re all so stupid that their writer included this line in that website’s article about fire pit safety: “But whatever you do, don't try to start a fire with gasoline. It's way too dangerous.”
There are people stupid enough to do that. They might be living next to you. That’s why we need Chief Williams’s suggested regulation on fire pits. It’s partly because of the design, but primarily because of the morons who use those fire pits. And I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about that moron who lives next door to you. Your fire pit is obviously safely operated, but his! Goodness! It’s a wonder half the town of Rolla hasn’t burned down the way he handles his fire pit.