The Do’s and Don’ts of Burning Garbage

Getting rid of garbage in the countryside is very different than it is in the city. Out here, nobody picks up our rubbish from the ends of our driveways, so we have to improvise. We turn to recycling or composting as much as possible. However, what we can’t reuse, we must burn or bury. So, we have burn piles.

These piles for burning garbage, yard litter and other debris are usually located nearby, but still at a safe distance from the house, outbuildings and garden. Burning garbage safely, efficiently, and responsibly involves more than just tossing a match into a dry pile.

Careless burning can produce devastating runaway fires, excessive air pollution, and angry neighbors. So, here’s the short course on proper rubbish burning.

Burn only what you must

Don’t unnecessarily pollute the air. Sell, give away, or compost what you can. Old wood is surprisingly valuable and, along with other “junk,” is as easily converted into cash as into smoke.

If you’re not in a hurry, composting is effortless and is beneficial for your garden. Put any organic material that the chickens or pigs won’t eat in a pile and let it rot into rich, black soil. It’s easy and you won’t have to worry about putting too much effort into it.

Obey the law

obey the law

Outdoor burning is regulated by laws, including those promulgated by federal, state and local authorities. There are 3,141 counties and county-equivalents in the United States, many of which have multiple fire-protection and air-quality-management districts.

Depending on where you are located, there may be several codes by which you must abide. It is your responsibility to learn from time what they allow, restrict and prohibit.

Not knowing and not wanting to know will be costly. Obviously, the damage that an illegal fire might cause to life and property can be catastrophic. But even a bland fire that causes a fire crew to respond to your property can result in fines and bills for personnel and equipment amounting to thousands of dollars, no matter how minor the infraction.

And penalties for air-quality violations can run $10,000 per day in some jurisdictions. While variable by region, outdoor burning regulations generally cover the following:


Small rubbish fires—say, a cubic yard—are often exempt from permits. However, large ones rarely are so it’s better if you obtain a permit before lighting the match.

TLW2b1Burning seasons

Typically they are specific periods during spring and fall in most of the country. And most fire districts require that you check with them to confirm that burning is allowed on that day, even during the season. Burning is usually prohibited on windy days.

Burning hours

In general, fires must be out well before sunset. It is important to plan your burning garbage activity from time.

Size of fires

This varies widely from one garbage pile to another. Usually, 10 feet in diameter is a common maximum.

Prohibited materials

Items such as plastic, rubber, petroleum products, treated lumber, and other materials that emit dense smoke or noxious odors are commonly prohibited.

In some counties, old straw or hay, animal bedding mixed with manure, animal remains, and materials transported from a different property are banned from burning as well. So, check carefully.

Proximity to structures

A setback of 50 feet is common, but more will be necessary from the neighboring property.

Method of ignition

method of ignition

Although you’ve seen many burning garbage videos online with folks using gasoline, you should know that many jurisdictions prohibit the use of flammable liquids, especially gasoline.

Required fire management equipment

A shovel and a water supply, with a hose connected and charged, or a working fire extinguisher is the universal minimum requirement.


The constant presence of a person capable of extinguishing the fire is another universal mandate.

Tools you need for burning garbage

U.S. Forest Service-style wildland firefighter’s shovel

This tool has a more pointed head than a standard round point shovel, and it’s traditionally sharpened well up the sides. It also has a steeper lift (i.e., the angle between the blade and the handle) and a shorter handle.

Those features allow it to be wielded more nimbly when scraping, digging, and tossing dirt to douse a fire. Some models have a flat area in the middle of the blade to improve performance when beating out burning embers.

Heavy-duty steel rake

While a common garden bow rake will do, a heavy road rake— flat-headed with longer, thicker tines and a longer handle—will do better. Better still is an asphalt rake that has a 2-foot steel shaft between the head and the handle, as it can be wielded inside the pyre without the worry of burning away the handle. Best of all is a braced fire rake. It has fewer but thicker tines and an even longer shaft than an asphalt rake, and it’s designed specifically for working within a fire.

Wildland fire rake

This tool is used by foresters and wildland firefighters to scalp the ground when creating fire breaks. Instead of tines, the head has four replaceable sickle-bar mower teeth mounted to a crossbar.

Heavy hoe

A stout hoe with a blade width of 8 to 10 inches, sharpened to a razor edge, is another good choice for clearing the ground around your burn pile. Eye hoes and cotton hoes are in this category.

Hazel hoe

Also known as a forest adze, a hazel hoe is cousin to a mattock. It has a heavy, 6-inch-wide blade atop a 3-foot handle, and it is the penultimate tool for clearing scrubby growth.

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Manure fork

Steel-headed manure forks come in four, five and six-tine configurations. They’re especially useful for building and loosening piles and for feeding a fire.

Pole mounted shop magnet

Use a shop magnet to extract nails and other metal objects from the burn pile site. If you have an old audio speaker laying around, remove its powerful magnet, attach a pole or rope and use it to extract ferrous metal debris.

Leaf blower

Adding more air causes a fire to burn faster and hotter. An electric or gas-powered leaf blower directed into a damp, smoldering pile at ground level can breathe ferocious life into it.

The best technique is to shove a long length of 4-inch-diameter thin-walled steel pipe into the bottom of the pile and then direct the blower’s tube into the pipe.

The use of a blower to accelerate a burn pile should only occur when there is virtually no combustible material anywhere nearby. The fast-moving stream of air can launch embers skyward and high enough to drift a long distance. You don’t want that.

Fire extinguisher

This is needed for emergencies. You should already have one or more in your house already.

Water buckets

water fire bucket

Having several 3.25-gallon galvanized steel water buckets on hand, filled to the brim, allows you to put a large amount of water on a fire in just a few seconds.

Cell phone

If you experience any problem at all, you need to have a phone on your person with the fire department number on speed dial. Make sure you are able to call for help before it’s too late.

Things to keep in mind when burning garbage

Pick a proper site

Pick a flat, clear spot near a water source and well away from brush, trees, crops, stacked bales of hay and other combustibles.

Don’t build your burn pile beneath an overhead power line, as rising heat can melt away the wire’s sheathing. Don’t locate it atop underground utility lines, either, as the heat from the fire can penetrate deep into the ground, melting buried plastic pipe or wiring insulation.

Keep your burn pile at least 50 feet from any structure you own and 150 feet from any structure owned by another. Select a location downwind of structures, especially those made entirely of wood.

Clear the area

Before burning, clear a firebreak down to mineral soil that will be 3 to 20 feet wide in all directions around the pile.

The bigger the pile, the wider the firebreak should be. This will give you the room to spread the pile, if necessary, without igniting any surrounding fuel, such as grass or leaf litter. It also gives you plenty of space to work in without any hazards in the way to make your trip.

Keep the pile small

keep the pile small

Don’t build a gigantic heap since big piles become compacted and stay wet down inside, so they’re difficult to loosen, difficult to ignite, and burn slowly with excessive smoke. If the pile doesn’t burn to ashes within a day, you have to douse it and finish another day. Instead, burn your pile while it’s small.

If you can’t burn frequently, collect your rubbish in a series of small piles positioned at 15 to 20 feet away and upwind from your burn pile. Feed your burn pile from these rubbish stockpiles.

Pick a good day for burning garbage

Check the weather forecast and pick a day that will be mostly dry (a slight chance of showers won’t hurt), cool, moderately humid, and with winds less than 10 miles per hour. Ideally, the ground should be slightly damp from recent rains.

Check-in with the fire authority

Make sure that the day you have chosen is a legal burn day. Advise the firemen as to when you will be burning. Reconfirm on the morning of the day you burn.

Dress properly

You don’t have to dress like a smoke jumper to burn your rubbish, but dress appropriately. Wear cotton clothing, not polyester or other synthetics that can melt onto your flesh. Wear a long-sleeved shirt, and button the shirt to the top or wear a scarf to prevent cinders from getting inside.

Make sure to protect your hands with flame-resistant gloves that fit closely at the top. Wear stout, ankle-high boots and tuck your pant legs inside your socks—a “hot foot” isn’t pleasant.

Cover your head—a full-brimmed hard hat is best. Protect your eyes with close-fitting safety goggles and if you wear glasses, invest in goggles designed for over-the-glasses wear.


Start early in the day

Commence burning as early in the morning as local laws allow. Fires better behave in the cool of the morning, and an early start gives you time to finish and douse the fire completely well before sunset.

Loosen it up

A pile will burn more efficiently—faster and at a higher heat— when loose. Use a pitchfork to lift and fluff up the pile before setting it aflame. Loosening it a day or two before the burn is especially helpful, as this allows the pile to dry out and dissipates any methane that has accumulated at the bottom due to decomposition.

Light your fire safely

The safest practices for fire-starting avoid the use of accelerants, especially highly volatile and explosive ones such as gasoline, acetone and the like. A simple and safe technique is to form a small nest of dry, crumpled paper and twigs or wood shavings, midway up the pile on its upwind side.

Light the nest using a match or a handheld butane or propane lighter. Other reasonably safe options include an industrial-quality propane torch—one with a long handle—or a small campfire-starting flare that burns at high intensity for around seven minutes when used as directed.

Moderate the fire

Avoid a smoky, smoldering, air-polluting fire. Also, avoid a raging inferno. The best fire is one that burns hot enough to minimize smoke while consuming fuel steadily and completely.

Use a fire rake or a long poker to concentrate or loosen the pile. Use a leaf blower to push air into the pile, increasing combustion, and a light spray from your water hose to reduce combustion.

Pay attention to the wind

pay attention to the wind

Don’t burn if much more than a gentle breeze is blowing. Monitor the wind speed and direction and douse your fire if conditions get dicey. An occasional gust isn’t a problem, but a sustained wind of 10 to 12 miles per hour means stop.

The most reliable, accurate way to monitor wind behavior is with an anemometer—a propeller-driven gauge made for that purpose.

Alternatively, you can learn to judge wind speed by using the Beaufort scale, which uses visually observable clues including rising smoke, blowing leaves and dust, vibrating twigs and branches, and swaying trees to identify 13 levels of wind force ranging from Force 0(dead calm) to Force 12 (a hurricane over 75 miles per hour).

Most fire authorities forbid outdoor burning in anything stronger than Force 3 (gentle breeze of 8 to 12 miles per hour), which is indicated by leaves and small twigs in constant motion, dry leaves blowing up from the ground, and flags extended outward.

When done, douse the fire

Burn it to a fine ash, then douse the burn site thoroughly with water until there is no smoke or steam arising. Never assume that the fire will die by itself since it’s often the contrary.

Rake to make sure that there are no live embers. Check the burn site after nightfall and the next morning to make sure it’s still out. Be cautious about it and don’t slack off.


This article was meant to present the do’s and don’ts of burning garbage and how you should dispose of trash properly. What it cannot teach you is common sense and that remains solely on you. Various precautions measures are needed when burning garbage in order to avoid causing a disaster that can spend like wildfire (pun intended). Be safe and pay attention when burning garbage!

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