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Times-Union: How safe are fire pits?

Alexandra Zissu

Among the things that tend to rile up Hudson Valley residents, new glamping projects rank high. Terramor is one of these, currently being proposed on a 77-acre parcel in Saugerties along 212, very near the Woodstock border. A group, Concerned Citizens Against Terramor Overdevelopment, has sprung up to push back on the many proposed structures: dorm, lodge, restaurant, wellness center and campsites. Most of the concerns are standard: traffic, wetland and habitat loss, and well-water usage.

But unusually, the group also says Terramor will contaminate the air. The project proposal includes 75 wood fire pits — one for each campsite — as well as a large community wood fire pit. They contend that “smoke from one fire pit is equivalent to the second-hand smoke from 800 cigarettes.”

Sarah Evans, an assistant professor in the department of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, says fire pits absolutely contaminate the air, though she’s not able to corroborate this particular statistic. “It’s hard to put a number on what the resulting air pollution from 75 fire pits would be. I think it’s really insightful for them to look at and consider that,” she said. When wood is burned, harmful gases and particulates are emitted. “There are respiratory irritants; particulate matter can get deep in the lungs. There are known cancer-causing chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde released,” said Evans.

Most of the current science around the safety of wood smoke comes from studies done on indoor wood burning, including in kitchens, as well as wildfires. “In the U.K., they have big bonfire nights every year that also involve fireworks,” Evans said. “They have looked at air quality during that. That’s where we get a lot of knowledge about particulate matter and the pollutants that result.”

There is less information about pollutants and particulates that emerge from a single outdoor fire pit, so scientists must extrapolate.

‘Burning wood is not clean’ While fire pits have always been a Hudson Valley staple, their popularity is growing, partially fueled by increased outdoor socializing during the pandemic. Now not only are fire pits at backyard gatherings but also at seemingly every outdoor restaurant space. It has become increasingly difficult to evade the ubiquitous smoke pouring from handmade or store-bought pits and chimineas. And smoke drifts.

“People don’t recognize burning wood is not clean. It does pollute the air. It is bad for your health,” said Evans, who wants increased public education about the issue. That said, she’s not anti-fire pit. She even has one at home, though she uses it infrequently. “I do think there are benefits. There’s an aspect of screen-free family time that comes from sitting around a fire or camping together. It’s not something I would want to restrict across the board.”

Recently Evans has been working on a project with several tribal nations in New York state that use wood-burning smoke and ash in their cultural practices. Where wood smoke is part of culture, recreation or even necessary — it’s an inexpensive way to heat — Evans would not suggest anyone avoid it entirely. Instead, she advocates for burning better fires.

How to build a better fire A better fire includes burning wood that has been dried and seasoned for at least a year and stored in a dry location. Never burn trash, garden waste or chemically treated wood. It’s a good idea to make small and very hot fires that don’t smolder. Evans breaks it down to a useful directive: “Don’t burn anything green or wet.

Moisture meters are an inexpensive way to check the moisture content of the wood. Evans says wood should have less than 20 percent moisture content before being burned. Should your fire get smokey, just step away from the plumes as the wind moves it around. (These useful tips and others are outlined in the “wood burning smoke” section of New York State Children’s Environmental Health Center’s Rx for Prevention.)

In general, fewer fires are a good idea. “Communities with more wood smoke have more respiratory infections, coughs, wheezing and ear infections compared to areas with less wood burning. Indian nations were very hard hit by COVID; exposure to air pollutants linked to worse COVID outcomes,” Evans noted.

People with vulnerable family members may want to take additional precautions. This includes people with asthma as well as adults with lung or heart disease who are at increased risk of heart attack and stroke from smoke exposure. Kids in general are also more vulnerable to wood smoke. “Children breathe faster and inhale more pollutants than adults do, and their lungs are still developing and more susceptible,” Evans explained.

If you’re setting up a new fire pit this season, try to site it away from the house if possible. Evans says one of the challenges with wood smoke is that “closing windows and doors doesn’t keep all of the particulate and gases out of the home.”

In Multnomah County, which has the worst air quality in Oregon, there is a seasonal ordinance prohibiting wood burning on poor air quality days. This doesn’t seem to be on the horizon for the Hudson Valley, but as the weather cools, anyone can check local air quality at sites like and avoid having fires on bad days.

“Cold weather traps particulate matter and worsens exposure,” Evans said. “Unfortunately, that is when you want to do the burning.

Additional resources for limiting pollution from backyard fires include the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Burn Wise program or this toolkit from the American Lung Association.

With precautions in place, you can get back to fun stuff like arguing about s’mores technique. “I am supportive of things that get people outside and experiencing nature,” said Evans. “I don’t want to vilify that or any gatherings that bring people together outside.”

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